LAST week, the Senate continued to debate its comprehensive immigration reform bill on the Senate floor, while the House Judiciary Committee passed a new guest worker program along party lines.
Earlier in the week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano joined forces to tout the benefits the Senate proposal brings to rural America.
Vilsack said it is important to get reform done this year when faced with the reality that 1.1 million people working in agriculture are immigrants and 700,000 are not properly documented.
He added that instituting a workable immigration system that's complemented by an effective guest worker program will bring those individuals "out of the shadows" and provide stability to the agriculture industry.
"This bill is pro-agriculture. Absent it, we will continue to have shortages and risk some agriculture production migrating outside of the U.S.," Vilsack said.
He noted that, in California, 80,000 acres of production have already moved out of state due to worker shortages.
Napolitano, a two-term Arizona governor who has spent most of her life near the border, called the Senate bill a "good security bill." She added that it also enhances the overall economic well-being of the country by increasing economic growth and jobs and having workers contribute to the Social Security trust fund.
Napolitano said the proposal recognizes the special circumstances of the e-Verify system and technology for rural America. She noted that special provisions for agricultural employers will be phased in last and said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is already working on mobile technology that can address the needs of rural America.
On June 19, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Agricultural Guestworker (AG) Act on a 20-16 vote. The piecemeal approach from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) does not include components of the agreement forged between agribusinesses and farm workers (Feedstuffs, April 22).
The bill establishes a new guest worker program to replace the current H-2A program and gives dairies and food processors access to it.
"In contrast to the current bureaucrat-driven H-2A program, the new guest worker program created under the AG Act is a market-based approach that removes red tape, streamlines access to a reliable workforce and protects farmers from abusive lawsuits," Goodlatte said.
The United Farm Workers continued to cry foul on Goodlatte's proposal, saying it would create a "servants-only" guest worker program for farm workers similar to what the country had from 1942 to 1964. The labor union said the bill would also eliminate many long-standing worker protections and slash wages for both foreign and domestic workers.
The "manager's amendment" for Goodlatte bill requires farm workers to self-deport, meaning they would have to report that they are here unlawfully and return to their country of origin and then could come back only at their employer's request.
In addition, Goodlatte's plan would not provide any pathway to legal status or citizenship for the current undocumented farm labor force and would only allow such workers to apply for temporary worker visas.