Immigration reform continues to build momentum in Congress. As migrant workers are a vital component of the U.S. food and fiber sector, agricultural interests are keen to bend the coming legislation to their best advantage.
Towards that end, in late 2012, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) first floated a proposal to deal with labor needs.
On Tuesday (April 2), Kristi Boswell, AFBF director of congressional relations, spoke with Farm Press about the current mood on the Hill, what would be acceptable for agriculture in the reform legislation and when the debate on immigration will begin in earnest. Among her comments:
On what’s happening in Congress…
“There’s a lot of energy and things happening on the immigration front in both chambers. There are bipartisan groups – eight senators, eight congressmen – working on comprehensive immigration reform. That includes everything immigration-related: border security enforcement, future foreign guestworker programs for business, for agriculture, for high-skilled workers. It runs the gamut on immigration issues.
“For agriculture specifically, we’re working with champions in those groups on developing the agricultural piece.
“In the Senate, we’re working with California Sen. Diane Feinstein and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet – Democrats – and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – Republicans. Ultimately, what they come up with will be placed in the comprehensive bill.”
Chances on the legislation passing? Harder to pass in the House?
“Not necessarily. The group in the House has been working on this for years, under the radar. They are, from all reports, further along in drafting legislative language than the Senate.
“Now, politically, I think there are still questions about the route the House will take. Leadership seems to be making public statements supporting the process. But it’s yet to be determined how it will be unveiled. Whether it’s a comprehensive bill or is done piece-by-piece, it will go through regular order. It’ll go through the Judiciary Committee, I believe, and go through mark-ups.
“There is a political appetite to take a bipartisan approach to reform in the House.
“In the Senate, there’s no question that comprehensive immigration reform is the route the lawmakers want to take. They want to put together a package deal that will go through the Judiciary Committee and be debated on the floor.”
If it doesn’t go through in a comprehensive package, you’ll still push for the agricultural piece? Is there any indication that piece will get through regardless?
“Our resources are all focused on the comprehensive side. Both chambers are there – but specifically in the Senate.
“Agriculture isn’t picky on the vehicle, so long as it’s a vehicle that moves. So, we’re doing our best to work with (those developing the legislation).
“If comprehensive reform stalls, we’ll be pushing for an agriculture-only fix and make sure agriculture’s needs are met.”
On the specifics in the proposals so far…
“What agriculture must have in order to support what comes out of this process includes short-term stability. We must be able to maintain our experienced agricultural workforce.
“We propose a work authorization that requires a commitment to work in agriculture for a set period of time. Whether that turns into a pathway to citizenship or some other form of legal status is a political question that will be decided at a much higher level than ours, frankly.
“However, we must also have long-term stability. We’ll continue to rely on a foreign-born labor force, which we have for more than 20 years. We must have a reform of the guest-worker program to meet future needs.
“What we propose is not a reform of the H2-A program. We propose a new program that is more flexible, more streamlined. It would allow employers to hire workers under a contract or hire workers at will. That would allow portability in the program – a worker could come in and work for multiple agricultural employers during the term of the visa.
“A lot of the elements of the program are in negotiations and discussions so I can’t get into too many details. But at the end of the day, we have to have a guest worker program that’s affordable for employers, that meets the need for a year-round labor force and also is more market-based and less bureaucratic. That would mean workers are coming in on time and meeting the needs of our perishable commodities. The program just has to work on the ground.
“We’re in discussions with the United Farm Workers Union  and other labor advocates trying to find a balance for a program that works for employers -- that is affordable and efficient -- and also treats workers fairly.”
Unions and a timeline
How would you characterize those union negotiations?
“The negotiations have honestly tapered off. We’ve transitioned to direct discussions with Senate and House staff rather than one-on-one conversations with the United Farm Workers Union.
“There was progress made between agriculture and labor advocates over the broad framework. However, when we got into the details of what a wage rate would be and what cap calculations would be, there wasn’t agreement between (the sides).”
What about capping the number of workers that can come into the country annually?
“That’s a huge issue. Frankly, it’ll make or break the program. If the cap is set too low, we’ll be forced to hire underground or go offshore.
(The cap) must be done carefully. The American Farm Bureau and the Agricultural Workforce Coalition  opposes an arbitrary, statutory cap. But politically caps seem to be a reality. So, we’re trying to fine-tune in a way that meets agriculture’s needs and provides an ample supply of labor.”
Any indication when this will be taken up in earnest on the floor?
“From all reports, we expect to see something released publically in the next week, or so. We’ll see if that pans out.
“I think the goal is to have this in committee in May and on the floor in the summer. Maybe it will be even sooner.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that something can be achieved this year. For agriculture this is a very important issue. We need to make sure we get this fixed and the opportunity is available.”
More from Western Farm Press