Industry reacts to Senate immigration bill

The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill June 27. The Senate passed the bill – called the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act – by a 68-32 vote.

According to United Fresh, the bill includes several agricultural labor provisions:

– Undocumented farm workers will be eligible to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to remain working in agriculture. Workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 work days, or 575 hours, prior to Dec. 31, 2012, can adjust to this new Blue Card status. After a minimum of five years, workers who fulfill their Blue Card work requirements will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions and pay a fine.

– A new agricultural guest-worker program will be established with two work options: 1) An “at-will” option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific job offer from an authorized agricultural employer, under a three-year visa. Employees will be able to move within the country, working “at will” for any other authorized agricultural employer during that time. Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance to these workers; 2) A “contract-based” option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific contract for a specific amount of work from an authorized employer. This will also provide for a three-year visa, and requires employers to provide housing or a housing allowance.

– All guest workers will be paid an agreed-upon wage.

– There is a visa cap for the first five years, while current workers are participating in the Blue Card program. The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to modify the cap if circumstances require.

– USDA will administer the new program.

Industry reaction

“We applaud the Senate for seizing the opportunity to enact immigration reform that is desperately needed in the fresh produce industry and many other sectors of agriculture,” said Tom Stenzel, CEO of United Fresh. “This bill will ease the burden on agricultural employers, create more jobs along the entire supply chain and boost the economy. We appreciate the efforts of our allies in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition and United Farm Workers, with whom we worked to advance provisions that will provide a legal and stable work force for fruit and vegetable growers.”

“Today’s vote marks a historic moment for new U.S. immigrants,” said United Farm Workers of America President Arturo Rodriguez. “(The bill) is a truly bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill that calls for a roadmap to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country.

“The comprehensive immigration reform proposal, which includes agricultural provisions negotiated by the United Farm Workers and major grower associations, fulfills the urgent need for an earned legalization program that enables undocumented farm workers who are the backbone of the nation’s agricultural industry to swiftly obtain legal immigration status. It will also stabilize the farm labor work force through incentives for immigrants to continue working in U.S. agriculture,” Rodriguez said.

According to Dean Norton, president of New York Farm Bureau: “Today’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform is a major milestone for New York’s farmers. It addresses critical short- and long-term needs that will better provide a stable workforce on our farms. Those needs include allowing employees who are already skilled and working in this state to stay here and eventually obtain legal status.”

Next steps

Debate now moves to the House of Representatives, which is expected to take up immigration reform in July. No one is anticipating an easy path.

“After the surprise failure of the farm bill the week of June 17, we are all left wondering what is really a ‘normal’ expectation for House action now,” said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. “It is even more important that everyone in agriculture talk to their House offices and remind them that labor-intensive agriculture cannot survive much longer without a legal and predictable work force.”

“The Senate vote is our first victory, but we still have a long way to go in achieving a new immigration process for all the men, women and children who just want to actively participate as full members of our society,” Rodriguez said. “The UFW vows to remain actively involved in working with President Obama, our allies in Congress and the immigrant rights community to enact a law this year.”

Matt Milkovich

Originally posted Friday, Jun. 28, 2013