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Farm workers should be included in immigration bill

By Larry Dreiling

Congress has been out of session the last two weeks. Some members have been back home conducting what goes for town halls these days while others have taken “fact finding” missions. The most interesting one I saw in the papers was a delegation going on a 10-day trip to India, paid for an Indian-American lobby group.

The delegation (spouses may have gone along, I don’t know), including Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-WY, apparently enjoyed a stay at the Lake Palace in Udaipur, a visit to the Taj Mahal, sightseeing at the tiger reserve at Ranthambore, a night at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Nice fact-finding if you can get it.

So while many of our Washington solons were out on the road and in the air (or on elephant, for all we know), there were a few hard workers and their staffs trying to do the good, old-fashioned dirty work of crafting legislation.

Take the Senate (please), where a few members, according to the AP’s labor writer Erica Werner, are aiming 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 have come to the country illegally.

Under the new plan, farm workers already here would get a speedier path to legal status than other immigrants in the country 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 shortly, but disagreements on wages and numbers of visas are proving tough to solve.

“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.

In all the gnashing of teeth by certain senators over securing the border and creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, the need for a good guest farm worker program has been forgotten—again—by the nation’s big city media.

At least 50 percent and as much as 70 or 80 percent of the nation’s farm workers arrived 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.

There’s so much illegal labor not only because of the need for workers, but also the inadequacy of current immigration programs. There is a 10-month visa program for farm workers, 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.

The H2A visa has also been a mainstay of the custom harvester industry, as many young agriculturalists from Southern Hemisphere nations return to the U.S. legally each year to harvest wheat and feed grains in the U.S. while crops in their own countries are still growing.

Many harvest firms, usually small, family-owned operations, deal with mountains of paperwork to bring these young people—usually from crop production areas of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—to work for a few months, get a taste of America and return home with new experiences to share. These operators, no doubt, would welcome some reduction in that paperwork.

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.

At that point, potentially, these workers could become eligible for green cards, which allow permanent residency and eventual citizenship—faster than the 10-year path to a green card that other immigrants in the country illegally are expected to face under the Senate immigration bill.

It’s being negotiated by four senators—Dianne Feinstein, D-CA; Orrin Hatch, R-UT; Marco Rubio, R-FL; and Michael Bennet, D-CO—only two of whom, Rubio and Bennet, are part of the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators writing the overall bill.

All involved hope for a resolution of an issue that has been in need of one for years, ever since the last major immigration overhaul, in 1986, failed to establish a workable visa program for farmworkers and others.

Let’s cross our fingers for Congress to come back to D.C. all refreshed and ready to help the immigrant labor pool, and American agriculture.

Now, about that farm bill…

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

Date: 4/8/2013

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