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A step to ag worker reform

DANIEL LOOKER 04/15/2013 @ 11:00pm Business Editor

The broad outline of an immigration reform bill was made public Tuesday, including changes designed to streamline a guest worker program for the nation's farms.

The bill would make an estimated 1 million agricultural workers already in this country without documentation eligible for "blue cards" giving them temporary residency and work authorization. It would also start a new guest worker program with an initial cap of roughly 112,000 workers.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee responsible for marking up a bill, called the results of a bipartisan group of eight senators, "nothing but a starting point," when he talked about the bill Tuesday with reporters.

"The agriculture industry needs a streamlined H-2A program," Grassley said, referring to the underused current program for bringing agricultural guest workers legally into the country. And, he said he wanted to see how well the replacement guest worker program would work in his own state, which needs a year-round supply of immigrant workers for dairy and hog farms and in the packing industry, he said. The new guest worker program would have several categories of farm workers, including those that return to their home country after seasonal harvests are complete. Guest workers would not be able to bring spouses or children with them, Grassley said.

For a time, it appeared that the immigration bill would be stalled by slow negotiations between the United Farm Workers, a union that represents ag workers who are citizens, and major farm groups representing growers. The negotiations had been going on for about four months, Diana Tellefson Torres, a UFW vice president told members of North American Agricultural Journalists (NAAJ) last week.

"What's really at issue, is whether farm workers are being paid too much or being paid too little," said Tellefson Torres, who is also executive director of the UFW Foundation.

At issue were the wages that guest workers would earn, and the number allowed into the country. The UFW wanted a lower cap on guest workers and employers wanted a higher one. "Simple economics say, that if there's too much of a product, what does it do to the price? It lowers it," she said, referring to the size of the cap. The current H2A program allows about 85,000 ag workers. Agricultural businesses wanted to start with a cap of 200,000, with numbers growing after that, she said.

Ag groups contend there is a real shortage of farm workers in some areas and at certain times of the year.

"The strawberry industry in Florida, for example, is a perfect example of an industry that is absolutely on the bubble right now," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. Regelbrugge also outlined points of difference, and agreement, between his group and UFW when he spoke to NAAJ last week.

"If we get any of these issues wrong, we risk sending these industries offshore rapidly," Regelbrugge said of the nation's fruit and vegetable farms.

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