By TIM THORNBERRY
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A much anticipated immigration bill was introduced last week in the U.S. Senate, which contains an overhaul of current agriculture labor regulations.
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 was crafted by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators and included Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John McCain and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) were also instrumental in getting the ag portion of the bill in place.
The language contained within the bill relating to agriculture labor would scrap the current H-2A guest worker program overseen by the Department of Labor and create a new, less cumbersome program administered by the USDA, according to a spokesperson from the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).
Kristi Boswell, AFBF director of Congressional Relations, said the organization has been active for months trying to find a balance where agriculture has access to a legal workforce and a program that treat workers fairly. She noted there would be two main components to the new regulations.
The first is the creation of a blue card system, which would allow experienced agricultural workers who have worked in agriculture at least 100 days in 2011 and 2012 to gain green card status by paying a fine, passing a background check and working in agriculture-type labor for a period of the next 5-7 years.
Boswell doesn’t know how many workers would be eligible, but of the 1.5 million immigrant agriculture workers in the United States about 70 percent are undocumented. “Our goal is to keep as many experienced ag workers as possible,” she said.
The second main provision of the ag proposal relates to a new guest worker program replacing H-2A. “It’s a program intended to replace our current workforce as they age out or transition out of agriculture, and also fill gaps in times of shortages,” Boswell said.
Under the new regulations, the old H-2A program would sunset one year after the announcement of the new plan. This new guest worker program would allow for employment arrangements under a contract or at will, meaning portability for workers who will be able to migrate as growing seasons change. They must also work for agriculture employers who are registered in the new program under a three-year visa.
There will be a cap on visas, explained Boswell. For the first five years it will be 112,333. But the visa cap is compounding so in year two, the number goes to 224,666 and in year three it tops out at 337,000. After year five, the number of visas will be determined annually by the secretary of Agriculture, said Boswell.
She also said one thing that makes the old program so unworkable is the fact it is not overseen by the USDA. She said the new program would be much easier to navigate.
“One of our main goals in this process was ensuring that the program was less bureaucratic, more streamlined, easier to operate and doesn’t require a farmer to hire a lawyer to get his workforce,” Boswell said. “That was a big goal and I think we achieved that. There will be very minimal filing through local FSA (Farm Service Agency) offices.”
The new regulations would also do away with the adverse wage rate and regulate wages according to six occupational categories and establish wages according to those categories.
United Farm Workers (UFW) President and UFW Foundation Board Chair Arturo S. Rodriguez said, “We believe the comprehensive bill and its compromise farm worker provisions will help improve working conditions and job opportunities for farm workers.
“We will work with President Obama, our allies in Congress and the immigrant rights community to enact a law this year. The compromise agricultural provisions should boost support for reform.” The UFW was involved in the negotiations of the ag proposal part of the bill.
Of course, the bill still has to pass a Congress that is becoming known for gridlock. Boswell said she is cautiously optimistic about the immigration bill, but that agriculture, including the AFBF, will be pushing Congress to pass it along with its agriculture provisions.