THE Senate began debate of its comprehensive immigration reform that seeks significant changes to how agricultural employers can obtain a legal workforce.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard from key members of the agriculture industry last week about the benefits the proposal offers the industry, most notably access to legal workers and year-round help for producers who have not been able to utilize the current H-2A program, such as, for example, dairy and livestock.
Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the current system is broken and forces farmers to seek workers who are undocumented. Farmers and ranchers are highly law-abiding citizens who want their actions to be legal, he said, and "this bill gives them that ability."
Conner said the current H-2A program is accessible only for producers with seasonal needs. In recent years, it has become even more unworkable and costly to use. He testified that only about 2-5% of agriculture's total workforce currently comes from the program. Meanwhile, an estimated 700,000 to 1.1 million migrant agricultural workers are here illegally.
In testimony, Alyson Eastman, who has been assisting H-2A employees in the Northeast since 1993, explained, "These employers are in the H-2A program because they want a legal, reliable, experienced workforce. However, in the last four years, it has become more difficult for employers to navigate the bureaucratic processes of the program in order to comply with the tougher regulations."
Conner noted that administrative delays caused an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms in 2010 alone. In addition, 72% of growers using the program reported that workers arrived, on average, 22 days after the date of need.
Because the H-2A program has a 10-month maximum, it constrains the ability of industries such as dairy to find legal workers. A 2012 Texas A&M University study found that 60% of the milk in this country comes from farms using an immigrant workforce.
Under the Senate bill, illegal immigrant farm workers may apply for a new "blue card" if they've worked in the U.S. agriculture industry for 100 days during 2011-12 and formally opt to remain in the country. After five years, blue card workers can receive green cards if they pay a $400 fine, pay all taxes owed and have not been convicted of a serious crime. Family status is eligible under the blue card application system.
Conner explained that the blue card program provides a fix for the 1986 immigration policy, which resulted in workers exiting agricultural employment, and instead helps retain the current trained agricultural workforce.
A new visa system for agricultural guest workers would be created to grant a portable, employment-specific visa (W-3) that allows workers to change jobs at will, with a similar contract-based visa (W-2) available to those currently under the H-2A system, which would end once the new system is operational.
Conner said the agriculture industry is glad that the new visa program will be administered primarily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor administers the H-2A program. Conner said DOL has "demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of agriculture and our labor needs."
He added that because of USDA's county-level presence through its Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices, he thinks producers will be comfortable using the local system, and the staff in those FSA offices can help producers navigate the new visa process.
Another important component of the Senate's proposal is the eVerify system. Businesses with more than 5,000 employees will have up to two years to comply, and small businesses will need to be able to verify employees by three years.
Agriculture has specifically been given four years, which Conner said provides time to ensure that the kinks are worked out and for small farms and ranches to come into compliance.