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Farmworker Accord on Visas, Wages Moves Immigration Bill Forward

April 15, 2013
Immigrant worker at dairy 2011
  
 
 

Farm groups agreed on a rolling visa limit for immigrant farmworkers and minimum wages for laborers, resolving sticking points on the path toward a broader rewrite of U.S. immigration law.

Wages will be set based on labor-market surveys that distinguish among different farm jobs, and visas for guest workers will be limited to no more than 337,000 over three years, according to lobbyists for organizations that resolved disagreements yesterday.

Ending the discord means growers’ and workers’ groups can back the legislative effort that will include creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

"This is a crucial step as momentum builds toward introducing a bill to fix" the immigration system, Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, said of the agreement.

Growers, including members of the American Farm Bureau Federation, had sought a higher cap on visas and lower wage levels than labor organizations such as the United Farmworkers Union wanted. The broader effort would tighten border security along with setting up the pathway to legal status for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The agreement worked out by Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, Bennet and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah also provides "protections for U.S. workers," Feinstein said in a statement.

Worker Shortage

"There is a shortage of U.S. workers willing and able to perform farm work," the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, a group of agricultural organizations including the Farm Bureau, the largest U.S. grower group, said in a statement. "Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to ensuring that American consumers continue to enjoy abundant and affordable food."

Along with the wage and visa issues, job-advertisement requirements that farm-owners said were onerous are being relaxed. Workers will also have the ability to switch employers, which the farmworkers’ union, the largest for migrant laborers, indicated was a key protection. U.S. Department of Agriculture will oversee the program for dispensing three-year guest-worker visas rather than the Labor Department, a change from current practice sought by growers.

The length of stay will help year-round industries, including dairy producers, which have chafed at shorter-term visas under the current H-2A agricultural guest-worker program. A path to citizenship has also been included, with an expedited route for workers who agree to remain in farm-related jobs.

Border Protection

The eight senators most active in immigration talks also have agreed on border-protection principles essential to Republican approval of any plan, according to people familiar with the talks who asked not to be identified because the negotiations were private.

In a sign that a final legislative proposal is near, the group of senators canceled a planned meeting April 11, and a person familiar with the talks said only staff-level work and bill-drafting remains. The group plans to unveil its proposal April 16, according to a Senate aide familiar with negotiations. Both asked not to be identified in speaking about the talks.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said after meeting with members of the group April 9 that he expects to "have legislative language to review" in time for an April 17 hearing.

About 25 percent of the U.S. farm workforce, more than 300,000 people, don’t have valid immigration papers, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. Other studies suggest the number may be more than 1 million, based on the seasonality of the work and historical trends.

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