Immigration Reform A Work In Progress

Lisa Lochridge 2012

The presidential election was a game-changer for the prospect of immigration reform and a solution for agricultural employers. After a significant Hispanic turnout that proved to be pivotal for President Obama’s re-election, we’ve seen a shift in attitude by congressional Republicans who have long resisted comprehensive reform.

Reform is a top priority for the president, and he has vowed to get legislation passed this year. Attorney Monte Lake of the Washington law firm CJ Lake gave FFVA’s board of directors an update at their winter meeting in January. He told the group that the current environment is the best opportunity agriculture has had in more than a decade to see reform happen. Legislators are open to the idea, talking more positively and showing willingness to help agriculture. “That’s a reason to hope,” Lake said. “We feel we have a real window to get something done this year.” What’s more, Sen. Marco Rubio has embraced reform, laying out plans of his own for legislation. “The goal is to give American agriculture a reliable workforce and to give protection to these workers as well. When someone is [undocumented], they’re vulnerable to being exploited,” he told the Wall Street Journal in January.

Lake applauded Rubio’s leadership for wading into difficult political waters. “He’s willing to take on all of those issues. That’s a very positive development because it’s a critical part of what we need as an industry,” he said. “We have a senator with the right politics in the right state working hard on this issue.”

Together We Stand

One of the keys to a solution that makes sense for all of agriculture is for the industry to be united. That may be stating the obvious, but it hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past. To that end, FFVA is a founding member of the newly formed Agriculture Workforce Coalition. The group serves as a single voice to seek legislation that will ensure American farmers have a legal, stable, and adequate workforce to plant and harvest their crops. Americans won’t be fed by Americans if there aren’t workers to do these jobs (which, by the way, Americans won’t do).

In addition to FFVA, founding organizations of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition include the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Nursery and Landscape Association, National Council of Agricultural Employers, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Milk Producers Federation, USA Farmers, U.S. Apple Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers, and Western United Dairymen.

Two-Pronged Approach

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition has proposed a two-part framework for reform that addresses both the current and future employment needs of farmers, ranchers, and nurseries. Rather than trying to cobble together a fix for the notoriously hard-to-use H-2A program or revive the failed AgJOBS bill, the coalition supports a new approach. First, the coalition advocates an agricultural visa program to ensure agriculture has a future workforce. The program would have two components. One is market-based, allowing workers to move among job opportunities without a contract. The other, for employers and workers who like the commitment of a contract, would allow employees to agree to work for a single employer for a fixed period of time. Second, the coalition supports an adjustment in legal status for experienced but unauthorized workers already in the U.S. These workers would be required to fulfill certain obligations, including working for a required period of time in agriculture.

“The need for able and willing agricultural workers goes beyond state boundaries,” said Mike Stuart, FFVA president. “It’s a critical issue for our nation. As a coalition representing all sectors of agriculture from across the country, we’re seeking a bipartisan solution that will provide the workforce that American farmers need to continue growing and harvesting abundant, safe, and healthful food for our country.”

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