Date: May 03, 2013
Magazine:
May 2013 - Irrigation Technology
An immigration reform compromise was reached by the major ag players.

It was a remarkable scene as WG President and CEO Tom Nassif sat in front of news cameras with United Farm Worker President Arturo Rodriguez, as well as other members of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition on April 18, and touted the compromise the ag leaders had reached on the agricultural guest worker component of comprehensive immigration reform.

The press conference was the culmination of countless meetings between ag labor and ag employers with both the blessing and involvement of numerous U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Marco Rubio.  The Gang of Eight, a self-described moniker four Republicans and four Democrats from the U.S. Senate have been wearing, have hammered out a bipartisan package of comprehensive immigration reform that they believe will get more than 60 votes in the Senate, making it filibuster proof.  In recent weeks that package had only been missing the agricultural component.

Nassif and Rodriguez — along with Chuck Conner, president & CEO, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; Jerry Kozak, president & CEO, National Milk Producers Federation; Mike Stuart, president & CEO, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association; Tom Stenzel, president & CEO of United Fresh Produce Association and Nancy Foster, president & CEO, US Apple Association — presented the agreement to the media with all participants, as well as others not in attendance, pledging their support and full-throated effort to finally pass immigration reform.

For his part, Nassif called the achievement “historic” and said it was a critical component of comprehensive immigration reform.  He said, if passed, it would assure agriculture “a stable and legal workforce.”  He said “ag is united in support of the legislation.”

Rodriguez said the legislation would provide agriculture with “professional farm workers” that would help “strengthen the nation’s agricultural industry.”  He said provisions in the law would offer workers a good wage as well as strong worker protections.  He added that the compromise was hopefully the first of many opportunities in which ag labor and employers could work together to improve the industry.

The compromise has many provisions but in general it will allow the vast majority of current farm workers to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to remain working in agriculture.  After a minimum of five years, these 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.  In addition, a new agricultural guest worker program will be established, that guarantees a flow of agricultural workers in future years.  The agreement does specify wages for various agricultural work.  There is a visa cap for the first five years of the program while current workers are participating in the Blue Card program.  The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture will have a mandate to modify that cap as circumstances dictate in future years.

The ag component, as well as other provisions agreed to by the bipartisan Gang of Eight, has presumably greased the skids for the bill’s passage in the U.S. Senate.  As of mid-April, the House Judiciary Committee had scheduled the bill for a one day hearing and then expected to send the bill to the Senate floor where a vote could be taken as early as the beginning of May.

It is a well-known fact that comprehensive immigration reform will have a tougher path to success in the House of Representatives.  While the results of the last presidential election revealed that Republicans do have problems attracting votes from the American Hispanic community, this fact appears to resonate more with statewide office holders as well as potential presidential aspirants.  Researchers have indicated that an overwhelming number of Republican members of the House of Representatives, where opposition to immigration reform is greatest, have few Hispanics in their districts.  For most local officeholders, it is not an issue that concerns their re-election.

As of this writing in mid-April, it is unclear whether the House will take a piecemeal approach or go for comprehensive reform.  There is a bipartisan group in the house working on the issue trying to forge a compromise that could pass.  Members of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, as well as the UFW’s Rodriguez, pledged to do all they could to garner support for the legislation in the coming months.  Both the labor and employer representatives believe they will have some traction with House members.  In fact, many House members that have been opposed to immigration reform, typically see eye to eye with the ag employer groups on many other issues.

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