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Immigration Legislation Envisions New Farm Worker Program

Washington — Sweeping immigration legislation taking shape in the Senate will aim to overhaul the nation’s agriculture worker program to create a steady supply of labor for farmers and growers, who rely more than any other industry on workers who are living in the country illegally.

Farm workers already here would get a speedier path to legal status than other immigrants here illegally, and a likely new visa program would make it easier for foreign workers to come to the U.S. Policymakers aim to install such workers in place of the half or more of the nation’s farm labor workforce estimated to be in the country illegally.

Negotiators have been working to finalize an agreement in time for the measure to be included in bipartisan legislation expected to be released next week, but disagreements on wages and numbers of visas are proving tough to solve.

Labor groups are accusing growers of pushing to lower farmworkers’ wages, while growers dispute that and say they want to pay a fair wage. Meanwhile, labor is resisting growers’ attempts to increase the potential numbers of new workers who would come in, as growers argue their industry’s viability depends on a strong new labor supply.

“It comes down to either we’re importing our labor or we’re importing our food, and if we don’t have access to a legal supply of labor we will start going offshore,” said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The issue has gotten little public attention in an immigration debate focused on securing the border, creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, and designing a new visa program for low-skilled workers outside of agriculture. But for states from California to Georgia to Florida with booming agriculture industries, it’s a critical part of the puzzle.

At least 50 percent and as much as 70 or 80 percent of the nation’s farm workers are here illegally, according to labor and industry estimates. Growers say they need a better way to hire labor legally, and advocates say workers can be exploited and need better protections and a way to earn permanent residence.

“One thing that we know is that there’s not an industry that will benefit more from a new immigration program than agriculture,” said Giev Kashkooli, United Farm Workers vice president. “The problem is industry needs people who are both willing and able to do the work. And it’s difficult work.”

The reason agriculture uses so much illegal labor has to do with the need for workers, but also the inadequacy of current immigration programs. There is a 10-month visa program for farm workers, called the H2A visa, but growers argue it’s so hard to use that once they’ve completed the paperwork whatever crop they needed picked may well have withered.

There were about 55,000 H2A visas issued in 2011, representing a small percentage of the nation’s approximately 2 million farm workers.

Part of the solution, growers and unions say, is to create a more permanent agricultural workforce. Senators would likely accomplish this by giving a new “blue card” visa granting legal status to farm workers who’ve worked in the industry for at least two years and intend to remain in it for at least five years more.