CHANCES of moving comprehensive immigration reform took another positive step forward last week when senators reported that they had reached a compromise on the agriculture portion of the immigration reform bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Cal.), although not part of the "Gang of Eight" involved in the negotiations, has been key to making sure the agricultural issues get resolved.
Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, told Feedstuffs that "tremendous progress has been made on very difficult issues."
At press time, negotiations were still under way, but there were "high hopes" that they could be wrapped up with sufficient time to spare before a planned hearing on the matter April 17.
The two main sticking points -- wages for foreign farm laborers working in the U.S. and a limit on visas for those workers -- have been settled, although specific details were not released.
During a briefing at the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting earlier in the week, Diana Tellefson Torres, national vice president of the United Farm Workers, explained that the AFL-CIO agreed to a future cap of 20,000 workers per year. After five years, the number would increase to 200,000 annually. The agriculture lobby wants 200,000 in the first year.
Currently, 600,000 farm workers are here as legal citizens, but another 1 million or more in the U.S. may be able to earn documented status. The fear is that those individuals, many of whom are professional farm workers, would leave the industry for higher-paying jobs.
Regelbrugge said the big question is finding the right target number for allowable visas. The coalition feels that the cap may need to be higher if many immigrants in the U.S. opt to earn blue card status.
The strawberry, citrus and tomato industries in states such as Florida are at risk of moving off shore rapidly, Regelbrugge said. "How the caps are set, if done poorly, could become a noose around the neck to survive" for those producers, he warned.
Regelbrugge noted that demographic dynamics are changing considerably in Mexico now that its economy is improving and population growth is slowing, which means fewer individuals may want to come to the U.S., so the next wave of immigrants could be from other countries.
Tellefson Torres added that agricultural workers should earn "living wages" to ensure that they can sustain their families. The wage issue has been a difficult one because different regions set different payment levels. Also, if too many foreign workers are allowed in, there is a fear that it will weaken wages and lead to an oversupply of workers.
The average field and livestock wage is $10.80 per hour, but economics say that is skewed, with 75% earning less and only 25% earning more than that level, Regelbrugge said. If a minimum wage is set, he said the program could become unsustainable over time.
One of the main components of the agriculture proposal includes a new program to replace the current H2A visa worker program. Agreement has been clear for portability, which means force workers wouldn't be forced to remain tied to a particular employer.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the agricultural journalists that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is "uniquely positioned" to keep track of individuals within a new immigration program due to its nationwide network of county and regional offices.
Vilsack reiterated that if Congress doesn't pass immigration reform, the nation runs the risk of certain sectors of U.S. agriculture migrating overseas. "We either import workers or import food," he warned.