By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Those in Washington, D.C., unfamiliar with agriculture have still gotten an earful over the last few months between the farm bill and farm labor legislation. While passage of a farm bill last year failed, immigration reform may have a fighting chance.
The “Gang of Eight” senators who have worked on a proposal for months have finally found common ground and are set to present the bill this week. Those include Democrats Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).
Within that bill are regulations for agriculture labor. While details were not readily available, one report stated the H-2A guest worker program would be replaced by a new program. The federal H-2A program is currently the only legal means to get immigrant laborers to the places they are most needed on a consistent basis. But it is expensive and plagued with red-tape issues.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), comprised of nearly a dozen existing agriculture groups and formed to address and advocate for a suitable workforce, has worked to ensure some type of agriculture labor reform is included in any immigration legislation.
The organization notes: “U.S. agriculture faces a critical shortage of workers every year, as citizens are largely unwilling to engage in these rigorous activities and guest worker programs are unable to respond to the marketplace. This situation makes our farms and ranches less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer.
“Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to agriculture and to the U.S. economy.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) weighed in on the progress made shortly after the announcement of the forthcoming bill. “The AFBF is pleased a framework was reached today on agriculture labor provisions between the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which AFBF is a member, and the United Farm Workers. These successful negotiations will help provide America’s farmers and ranchers a much needed legal labor supply, while paving the way for many farm and ranch workers to obtain legal status,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman.
“We appreciate the tireless efforts of senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Marco Rubio, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Michael Bennett to garner consensus and agreement by all parties on such a significant issue. The framework and objectives established today are a positive step toward achieving meaningful immigration reform.”
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Assoc. – another member of the AWC – said the framework and objectives of this agreement represent a major step toward ensuring a viable solution for America’s farmers and ranchers to have access to a legal workforce now and in the future.
“The agreement the Ag Workforce Coalition was able to negotiate with the UFW (United Farm Workers of America) is a crucial step in solving our immigration crisis and securing a stable and legal workforce in the years to come,” he said.
“Over the past year the agriculture community was able to come together in a historically broad coalition. The force of agricultural producers and worker representatives coming together on a framework will play a significant role in achieving immigration reform this year.”
Closer to home, Kentucky Farm Bureau’s Director of Public Affairs Jeff Harper said the latest developments are good steps in getting a program that works.
“We believe this is positive movement in terms of getting some sort of agriculture guest worker program that works; not that H-2A doesn’t work, but it is so cumbersome for an individual farmer to try and garner enough guest workers through that program,” he said.
Harper also said the organization is hopeful the agriculture part of the immigration bill will be administered through the USDA.
The Associated Press reported the reforms will include terms for wages and to create a path for illegal workers to gain legal status by working in agriculture for a specific period of time, possibly as little as three years.
Whether Congress will act on these immigration proposals remains to be seen, but U.S. Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) said the current guest worker program is part of the problem. “Kentucky farmers regularly tell me that they face a shortage of labor. Our current temporary agriculture guest worker programs are part of the problem and actually encourage illegal immigration because they are overly complex and impose too many burdensome requirements on employers,” he said.
“This shortage of labor harms our economy by increasing the cost of agricultural production, which in turn impairs U.S. competitiveness and hurts consumers through higher prices.”
Barr represents Kentucky’s 6th District, a traditionally rich agriculture area especially for tobacco, equine and cattle producers. He added that failure to address the illegal immigration problem will only make matters worse.
“If we do nothing to advance real solutions or end rewards to those who cheat the system, the number of those entering our country illegally will only continue to grow and further increase the strain on public resources,” he said. “We must improve and streamline our H-2A program, because securing a reliable workforce for our nation’s farmers is essential to agriculture and the U.S. economy.”