Bill would replace H-2A and E-Verify programs

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Immigration reforms that would replace H-2A visas with an agricultural guest worker program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture would provide growers with a stable, legal work force for the first time in decades, produce leaders say.

Leaders from numerous fresh produce groups are supporting the bill, introduced April 17 by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Several of them spoke during a press conference of the Ag Workforce Coalition.

Eleven organizations, including the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., founded the coalition. It is supported by another 58 groups. The coalition negotiated with Schumer and seven other senators co-sponsoring the bill, named the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.

Tom Nassif, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers — one of the coalition’s founding members — said the coalition is “behind something truly historic for agriculture and comprehensive immigration reform.”

He said the United Farm Workers’ move to join the coalition is a rare example of labor and employers joining efforts.

Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh, said the proposed reforms are the best opportunity he’s seen for U.S. growers to gain access to a legal work force.

“Our industry has always been up front about our work force,” Stenzel said April 18. “We know many of our workers today are undocumented … but they are doing work that many Americans are not willing to do.”

Blue cards in, H-2A out

To address the problem of an estimated 1.2 million undocumented foreign workers in the agricultural sector, the 844-page bill would create a “blue card” system that would be in effect for five years. Having a blue card would not entitle workers to public benefits.

Undocumented employees will be required to pay a penalty of $100 and prove they worked in the ag sector before Dec. 31, 2012, would be issued a blue card to start them on the road to a traditional green card.

All current agricultural workers would be eligible to apply for blue cards.

“The benefit to the workers is that they immediately have legal status,” Stenzel said. “The benefit to the growers is that they would have a stable work force.”

Arturo Rodriquez, president of the United Farm Workers, said the bill and the coalition’s work on it are unprecedented.

“With this (legislation) farmworkers would no longer have to fear deportation … and the compromises on wage rates that were reached should create stability for farmers and workers alike.”

The bill also includes an agricultural guest worker program under the jurisdiction of the USDA. That program would go into effect one year after the bill is signed into law and would replace the H-2A visa program.

“We feel farmers will be able to work better with the USDA instead of the Department of Labor because it is more concerned about their businesses and understands them better,” Stenzel said.

The blue card program and the agricultural guest worker program are better for U.S. growers than the H-2A system, Stenzel said, because they allow for more workers.

The H-2A system covers between 50,000 and 70,000 workers, said Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, which is also a founding member of the coalition. She said the apple industry alone needs about 70,000 harvest workers each fall to handpick billions of apples.

With new agricultural guest worker program, 112,000 new workers could gain legal entry during each of the first three years of the program. In years four and five the number would be capped at a cumulative total of 337,000. After the fifth year the secretary of agriculture would set the cap for the guest ag workers, depending on the needs of U.S. producers.

When the new ag guest worker program under USDA gets rolling, Stenzel said foreign workers could apply for three-year visas to work on at-will or on a contract basis. 

E-Verify replacement

Agricultural employers would have to register with USDA and meet documentation requirements to use the guest workers.

Among the requirements would be a beefed-up version of the E-Verify program. If enacted, the bill would repeal E-Verify and replace it with an employment verification system yet to be developed, the proposed legislation states.

Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, another of the coalition’s founding partners, said the reforms in the bill provide a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to fix a broken system.

The problems with E-Verify, as far as the fresh produce industry was concerned, were related to errors generated by a complicated, expensive database, Stenzel said. One example, he said, is that 5% to 10% of the Social Security numbers in the system are incorrect.

Under the new electronic job verification system, states’ driver license photo databases would be incorporated into a national photo database. The bill includes $250 million to help states pay for participation in the system.

Fines for employers who hire unauthorized workers would begin at $3,500 per violation and reach $25,000 per violation for repeated offenses. Employers who failed to keep required records of employees’ verified status would face fines beginning at $500 per incident and increasing to $8,000 per incident for repeated offenses.

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