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Ag immigration deal nears

Bipartisan negotiations reach agreement on ag sticking points of wage and number of visas to issue.

Chances of moving comprehensive immigration reform took another positive step forward this week when the bipartisan senators reported that they had reached a compromise on the agriculture portion of the immigration reform bill.

The two main sticking points – wages for foreign farm laborers working in the United States and a limit on visas for these workers – have been settled, although specific details were not released. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), although not part of the "Gang of Eight" involved in the negotiations, has been critical in making sure agricultural issues get resolved.

Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chair, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, told Feedstuffs that "tremendous progress has been made on very difficult issues." Negotiations were still underway but there were "high hopes" they could be wrapped up with sufficient time ahead of a planned hearing on the matter April 17, possibly as soon as Friday afternoon.

During a briefing at the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting earlier in the week, Diana Tellefson Torres, national vice president of United Farm Workers, explained that the AFL-CIO agreed to a cap on future workers at 20,000 workers/year. After five years the number would increase to 200,000 annually. The ag lobby wants 200,000 in the first year.

Currently 600,000 farmers workers are here as legal citizens but another 1 million or more are here that may be able to earn documented status. The fear is those individuals, many who are professional farm workers, would leave the ag industry for higher paying jobs.

Regelbrugge explained the big question remains what is the right number to target for allowable visas. The coalition feels there may need to be a higher cap if many of immigrants in the United States opt to earn blue card status.

States such as Florida have their strawberry, citrus and tomato industries at risk of sending those industries 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 said.

Regelbrugge noted demographic dynamics are changing considerably in Mexico now with their economy improving and population growth slowing may bring fewer individuals from there and the next wave of immigrants may be from other countries.

Tellefson Tores added workers in agriculture should have "living wages" that ensures these people are able to sustain their families. The issue of wages has been difficult as different regions require different payment levels. Also, if too many workers are allowed in, there is a fear it will weaken wages with an oversupply of workers.

The average field and livestock wage is $10.80/hour, however economics state that is skewed with 75% below the level and only 25% above, Regelbrugge said. If wages are set at a minimum, it could create a program that is unsustainable over time by forcing to keep no one from going below average.

One of the main components of the ag proposal includes a new program to replace the current H2A visa worker program. Portability - the ability for workers to not stay tied to a particular employer – has been one area where agreement is clear.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also told journalists at NAAJ that USDA is "uniquely positioned" to keep track of individuals within a new immigration program with its nationwide network of county and regional offices.

Vilsack reiterated that if immigration reform isn't reached, the nation runs the risk of certain sectors of U.S. agriculture migrating overseas. "We either import workers or import food," he said.

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