WASHINGTON — Farmers would not lose experienced workers, future workers would move through a new visa system, and enforcement of E-Verify would be delayed for agricultural operations under the new immigration reform bill hailed by farm workers and agricultural employers at an April 17 press conference.
Just days ago, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition and the United Farm Workers reached an agreement on agricultural labor provisions -- a signal of how fluid negotiations were on the immigration reform legislation right up until the bill was introduced this week.
The agreement has now been attached to the "gang of eight" bill, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, that was introduced April 17. Four senators helped broker the agreement on the agricultural labor language: Michael Bennet (D-CO) Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
"We've arrived at something historic," Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, said at the nearly hour-long press conference in Washington, DC.
To solve the 30-year-old problem, the coalition, the union and senators had to make compromises, explained Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
Under the bill, current undocumented workers would be eligible for a new Blue Card if they choose to remain working in agriculture, and after five years become eligible for a Green Card if they meet certain conditions.
A new agricultural guest worker program would be established with two options: an "at will" option (W-3 visa) for workers to accept a job with an authorized agricultural employer under a three-year visa; or a "contract basis" option (W-2 visa) for workers who accept a specific contract under a three-year visa and receive housing or a housing allowance.
The H-2A visa program would sunset after the new visa program is operational.
The United Fresh Produce Association said that all guest workers would be paid an agreed-upon wage, and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would manage the visa cap during the first five years of the Blue Card program and be allowed to modify the cap after the initial period if the labor situation changes.
It is estimated that more than half of the 2 million workers in agriculture may be undocumented.
The new legislation would require agricultural workers to show they worked 100 days in agriculture in 2011-12 to qualify for the Blue Card, said Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, who stood alongside agricultural employers at the press conference.
The language in the bill allows the workforce the opportunity to gain legal status and to stay in agriculture as a profession, Mr. Rodriguez said. Farm workers could work in the field without fear of being deported, reunite with family members, and continue to work with temporary legal status, he said.
"It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we can't afford to let go by," Mike Stuart, president of Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said at the press conference. The agreement is structured so employers can access Blue Card workers during the transition before the new visa program is up and running, he said.
Dairy farmers praised the new bill for allowing farms to hold onto experienced employees, and eliminating the seasonality element of agriculture visa programs, such as H-2A, which prevented dairy farmers from using it, said Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.
The bill would require all employers to use the federal E-Verify system to detect illegal workers after a five-year phase-in period, though Mr. Connor of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives said that agricultural businesses would be in the "back of the line" to time for the new visa program to work.
Mr. Nassif said that Western Growers Association has long supported E-Verify-type systems, but has called on Congress to pass legislation to build a stable, legal workforce for agricultural producers before enforcing it.
While the latest agreement is an important step forward in achieving meaningful immigration reform, "there's a long way to go with this legislation," cautioned Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association, who added that the industry is committed to helping the legislation move forward.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to begin hearings on the legislation on April 19. There is no similar package in the House, but Mr. Connor said the coalition met with House members April 16 to drum up support.