Once again, policymakers in Washington, DC, are saying they want to tackle immigration reform. The complex issue has been talked about for years, but quite frankly, nothing has happened. The movement for fixing the country’s broken system has been bogged down in multilayered political fighting. But there is some serious momentum building to finally get something done. Political heavy hitters on both sides of the aisle have said they are committed to seeing a reform package sent to the President.
For agriculture, of course, the focus of the immigration discussion is creating a national guestworker program that works for farmers. Florida citrus’ harvesting workforce is nearly split between traditional I-9 labor and the H-2A visa program. But most growers are not satisfied with either. Traditional I-9 labor is most likely undocumented and the H-2A program is expensive and inefficient.
Representatives from Florida Citrus Mutual (FCM) recently met with Senator Marco Rubio’s staff to discuss the agricultural guestworker program and how it can best serve the men and women who produce the nation’s food supply. Rubio has been a central player, along with Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, in drafting an immigration reform proposal.
I and FCM board members Paul Meador and Bo Bentley joined the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Orlando to talk guestworkers with Rubio’s top staff. I would like to thank Senator Rubio for taking the lead on this issue and understanding that a stable agricultural workforce is important to Florida’s (and the nation’s) economy.
A common theme emerged during the meeting: Florida agriculture needs dependable, affordable labor. We were determined not to let the complexities of the program bog down the discussion, so we focused the meeting at 30,000 feet. Let’s figure out the overarching “must haves” and then we can dig into the details.
Three Points Of Interest
FCM told the staffers there are three basic components to any new guestworker program:
- Because growers need a reliable workforce when their fruit is ready to pick, farm labor cannot simply be “at will” with unqualified portability, or movement from job to job. Citrus growers, who harvest for up to nine months, must be able to count on guestworkers through the entire season so the crop will not be left hanging on the tree due to labor moving on to other occupations. Consequently, there must be a “contract” designation that binds the worker and contractor for a set period of time to provide some level of labor stability.
- The guestworker wage must be calculated by either the federal or state minimum wage. In Florida, the minimum hourly wage is currently $7.79 compared to the federal $7.25. This offers users a clear-cut wage rate that allows growers to budget accordingly.
- The USDA must lead the program as the agency is more in tune with the business of American farmers than the Department of Labor. In addition, Congress must give the USDA a strong commitment to support the program with funding and state-of-the-art infrastructure. A brand new program will fail just like the current H-2A program if staffing and technology levels are inadequate.
The immigration reform issue will not be resolved easily. It’s going to take compromise on behalf of political, business, and labor leaders to create meaningful reform. I am cautiously optimistic Congress can pass legislation in 2013 that helps stabilize the agricultural workforce while providing farmers with affordable, consistent labor via a guestworker program. With all of the other disease and marketing issues Florida citrus faces, this would be a welcome challenge off the table.