In what members called a historic moment, leaders from both agricultural employers and agricultural workers touted comprehensive immigration legislation Wednesday that would strengthen the agriculture industry and provide a more stable workforce.
The landmark legislation was introduced in the Senate Wednesday and includes provisions based on agreements made by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), United Farm Workers, and key lawmakers.
United Fresh CEO Tom Stenzel said the need for a legal, stable, reliable workforce remains the largest challenge to the industry. And the labor shortages facing the agriculture industry is a problem that's not going to go away. Stenzel estimated that 2 million farm workers are immigrants and an estimated 1.2 million are working with false documentation.
"Agriculture is going to be key to passing broad immigration reform," Stenzel said.
Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, explained the agreement is a "balanced agreement" that in the final weeks focused predominantly on adequate wage limits and a cap on new visas.
Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, explained there are several provisions that will incentivize agriculture workers to stay in the ag industry, which was not how history played out in the 80s. He explained there are opportunities for workers to have the government look more favorably on issues around violations they may have previously committed.
Specifically the agreement allows current undocumented farmworkers to be eligible to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to remain working in agriculture:
Ag workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours prior to December 31, 2012 can adjust to this new Blue Card status.
After a minimum of five years, workers who fulfill their Blue Card work requirements in U.S. agriculture will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions and pay a fine.
A new agricultural guest worker program will be established, with two work options. The first is an “At-Will” option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific job offer from an authorized agricultural employer, under a three-year visa. Employees will then be able to move within the country, working “at will” for any other authorized agricultural employer during that time. Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance to these workers.
A “Contract-Based” option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific contract for a specific amount of work from an authorized employer. This will also provide for a three-year visa, and require employers to provide housing or a housing allowance.
All guest workers will be paid an agreed-upon wage under the terms of this agreement.
There is a visa cap for the first five years of the program while current workers are participating in the Blue Card program. The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to modify that cap if circumstances show there is a shortage of workers, Conner said.
Conner added that the guestworker visa provisions were a very sensitive issue in the negotiations.
The new program will be administered by the Department of Agriculture. Conner said this will be beneficial to those in ag who will be more familiar and comfortable with the local county office structure that currently exists.
The work is far from over, as Conner noted it will be a "lengthy process" as the Senate begins full debate of the bill. House members have not formally been involved in the discussions. However, the AWC said it met with eight House bipartisan members this week to educate them about the proposal.
Conner did not share who the House members were, but noted, "I think what they demonstrated was that they're trying to work together and that's an important step in this process."
During the press briefing, AWC members recognized that some rural legislators have not been as supportive of comprehensive immigration reform.
Stenzel noted that with ag employers and ag workers unified it will be important in help "make the difference in those swing votes to support broad immigration reform."