Commentary: Immigration debate different this time around

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Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, and published on the Ag Alert newspaper site.

For the past 12 years, attempts at developing meaningful immigration reforms have been more about rumor and "potential" than actual substance or reality. I don't want to sound naive or once again falling victim to false hope, but the situation appears to be different this time.

Since the November elections, immigration reform has taken center stage once the "fiscal cliff" was dealt with. The president has made speeches about it and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has proposed a broad legislative framework to deal with the immigration issue.

During the past year, a coalition of agricultural organizations from across our nation has worked together in an unprecedented manner to develop parameters for an agricultural immigration reform package. The American Farm Bureau Federation, along with state Farm Bureaus including the California Farm Bureau, has worked with other agricultural groups to craft a program to meet the diverse needs of farmers across the nation. Be it a sweet potato farmer in the South who is challenged to attract workers to isolated areas, dairy farmers in the Northeast, apple growers in the Northwest or California farmers growing a diversity of seasonal or perishable crops, a program must be developed that can meet these varied needs.

Collectively, these agricultural groups formed the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which has developed a set of universally supported principles that would define an agricultural worker program. The coalition is working with Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to craft the agricultural components of an immigration reform package.

While the political winds finally seem to be blowing in the same direction, with the administration and congressional leaders from both parties realizing that doing nothing about immigration is not a good option for anyone, there will undoubtedly be resistance to any proposal.

Some have contended if farmers only paid higher wages, they wouldn't have a shortage of prospective workers. However, a recent report by the Employment Development Department showed average hourly wages for agricultural jobs in California were comfortably above minimum wage, on average 50 percent higher. In addition, most agricultural employees have the opportunity to earn premium pay for overtime hours. One of the challenges with securing domestic labor for agricultural work is that it is often seasonal employment and less predictable than other jobs, even jobs that don't pay as well. Most domestic job seekers want longer-term employment with predictable hours and workplace location. Agricultural work is typically performed outside, susceptible to varying work schedules and will often move from farm to farm and employer to employer, as the crop or weather dictates.

Reform proposals must address how to deal with 11 million people already in the United States without proper documentation, as well as a system to allow future foreign workers to attain legal documents to enter and leave the U.S. as their work requires. Even with a workable solution to our current immigration debacle, the future portends a declining number of workers from Mexico seeking farm work in the U.S., as the Mexican economy strengthens and birth rates decline. It has become a politically charged issue on how to deal with those undocumented who are already in this country. Many of these individuals have been employed in our country for years, have paid taxes, bought homes and have families rooted here. The technology available today would allow for proper background checks and development of forgery-proof work and identification cards, which would prevent a recurrence of the current forgery-prone identification system.

With the proposal of a national electronic verification identity system (E-Verify), it is critical to have an effective agricultural worker visa program in place. A recent online survey by the California Farm Bureau showed that farmers throughout our state face labor shortages, especially among labor-intensive crops such as seasonal fruits and vegetables that are subject to perishability concerns. While reported crop losses have not been widespread yet, many growers have elected to change to crops better suited to mechanization. Even then, finding the domestic labor supply to operate the specialized equipment to grow and harvest our domestic food supply is challenging. Fewer workers may be required with mechanization, but the seasonal, temporary and varied work hours and locations will remain the same. That's just farming: Mother Nature dictates farming and harvest timing and scheduling as much as anything.

After a dozen years of failed attempts to fix our broken immigration system and provide for a much-needed agricultural program, there seems to be a realization that we cannot continue to ignore this problem. Border security is extremely important to our national security. An effective system to identify, register and credential individuals who are important contributors to maintaining our domestic food supply will reinforce our border security by reducing the challenges of folks seeking entry to our country by illicit means because no effective system of legal entry exists.

Last week, when the bipartisan group of senators released their immigration reform framework, they specifically recommended unique treatment for people who have been working without legal status while "performing very important and difficult work to maintain America's food supply." At the same time, American agriculture has worked together in an unprecedented effort to be sure the unique labor needs of farmers and ranchers throughout our nation are addressed.

After the current glare of publicity subsides and the negotiations begin in earnest, specific proposals will emerge and you can be sure that Farm Bureau will keep you up to date on them. Be certain to watch for FARM TEAM action alerts and take advantage of every opportunity to talk to your representatives about how employee shortages have affected your farm or ranch, and how immigration reform will help assure supplies of domestically grown food, harvested by people who want farm jobs and want to be in the country legally.

Is the immigration debate different this time? Absolutely, and your input and active engagement will be critical to finally realizing a workable solution.


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