President Barack Obama wants Congress to send him a bill by fall remaking the nation's immigration laws.
The Senate cast its first floor votes June 11 on the landmark measure opening a door to citizenship for millions. Legislation would boost border security and workplace enforcement, allow tens of thousands new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, and create a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Both votes passed by comfortable margins. Contentious issues include border security, back taxes and health care coverage.
The United Fresh Produce Association applauded the Senate Judiciary Committee for approving the comprehensive immigration bill by a strong bipartisan 13-5 vote May 21. Nearly 300 amendments were proposed to the overall immigration package, but no changes were made to the new agriculture worker program, which provides for a new, market-based federal program to ensure a steady and experienced agriculture labor force. The new agricultural workforce framework was developed through negotiations between the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which United Fresh is a founding member, key senators and agriculture labor.
"We expect a strong vote out of the Senate," said Robert Guenther, United Fresh senior vice president of public policy.
Potato growers are following the debate closely due to the jobs held by immigrants in packing facilities.
"That's where you can see the biggest impact related to the potato industry," Guenther said.
According to John Keeling, National Potato Council executive vice president and CEO, a medium-sized packing shed employs up to 60 workers. With about 150 such sheds in the nation, the bill impacts about 9,000 workers in the potato industry.
Guenther said potato growers and other members of the produce industry want a legal, viable and stable workforce.
"We believe the bill that's been drafted by the Gang of Eight in the Senate that passed the judiciary committee answers all those questions," he said. "On the legal side, it gives a transition to the current workforce here in this country that is undocumented or is at least not here on legal documents. It allows them to come out of the shadows and transition to a legal status. It allows them to stay in agriculture, work in agriculture.
"How much that will impact the potato industry is not as defined as probably some of the other specialty crops, but certainly they will benefit. I think all of agriculture will benefit from having this legal and workable workforce coming out of the shadows."
The new program allows current, experienced agriculture workers to stay in the U.S. while adjusting to legal status. It also establishes a future workforce program, which provides employers and employees with flexibility through either an "at-will" or contractual arrangement under a three-year visa program. The new proposal also allows for a transition period from the current H-2A guest worker system to the new program to ensure that employers will not face gaps in program availability and resulting workforce shortages.
Guenther said the Senate bill includes a strong agreement between agriculture labor and agriculture employers that combines adjustment of the current workforce to legal status with a new guest worker program to meet future industry needs.
Growing, harvesting and distributing fruits and vegetables to consumers require skill and speed. Crops must be harvested when ripe and handled correctly by skilled workers. Despite every effort to attract domestic workers for these jobs, it is foreign-born workers who apply for and effectively fill these positions.
Unlike most other areas of the U.S. economy where workers outnumber available jobs, the agriculture industry is experiencing a serious challenge in attracting enough skilled labor to meet its needs. The current workforce, consisting of domestic laborers supplemented by foreign H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program workers, continues to provide an inadequate workforce for potato growers and other specialty crop producers.
In order to avoid a crisis in agriculture where product either rots in the field or production shifts to overseas competitors, the National Potato Council supports congressional efforts to reform the nation's immigration laws and reform the H-2A program.
A new Center for Immigration Studies analysis of the Senate bill finds that in the first year it would admit nearly 1.6 million more temporary workers than currently allowed. After that initial spike, the bill would increase annual temporary worker admissions by more than 600,000 each year over the current level-an increase four times larger than the one called for in the 2007 Bush-Kennedy proposal (about 125,000).
As a result, this bill would roughly double the number of temporary workers admitted each year (nearly 700,000 in 2012). These workers are classified as "non-immigrants" and would be in addition to the bill's large proposed increase in annual permanent legal immigrants competing for jobs (more than 30 million in the next decade).
The 2007 bill was defeated in part due to widespread concerns over the increase in the number of guest workers. While sponsors of the Senate bill suggest that it more responsibly manages the number of guest workers than the rejected 2007 proposal, it allows for dramatically more guest workers than the 2007 plan did.
Under the bill, the Future Flow Guest Worker Program would be transferred from the Labor Department to the Agriculture Department, who will administer it.
"We think that's a big benefit," Guenther said. The policy under which guest workers are hired would be streamlined and more efficient.
"The USDA will help a lot with that process," he said. "Portable-type programs will allow guest workers to work at farms for two- to three-week periods and then move to another farm. We see a lot of this as a very positive impact for the fresh produce industry."
Guest workers who stay employed in agriculture will be able to apply for citizenship.
"The time is now," Guenther said. "We can't wait any longer. This is the best opportunity we've had since 2006-07 when Congress tried to do a comprehensive immigration reform.
"In the House, it's a much trickier road. It's not very clear how they're going to manage and address immigration reform. We do expect them to bring up their own version of a bill.
"Right now it's very unclear how the House is going to move forward on its discussion of the immigration bill," Guenther said. "So that's why it's very important that the Senate passes a bill with a strong bipartisan vote. That gives us much more ability to convince the House that they need to take this bill up as well. It will certainly put a lot of pressure and impetus on the House passing a comprehensive bill."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said June 11 he thinks there's a good chance that legislation can be signed into law "by the end of the year."
However, the Congressional Budget Office reports that illegal immigration would only decrease by 25 percent under the Senate's version of the bill.