Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Immigration plan would change guest-worker farm program; dairy interests say plan wouldn't help them

Four Republican and four Democratic U.S. senators known as the "Gang of Eight" proposed their version of immigration reform this week, calling for tighter border security, more efficient paths to citizenship and more guest-worker permits. Agricultural interests have been lobbying for reforms to the guest-worker program since last year, when tighter rule set by Congress dramatically decreased the number of farm workers. (Associated Press photo by Sam Adams: California farm worker)

More than 1.4 million people are employed as farm workers in the U.S. each year, and the Labor Department estimates that more than half are in the country illegally, with some farm groups saying that number exceeds 75 percent, report Janet Hook, Kristina Peterson and Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal. The Gang of Eight's proposal doesn't provide specifics about how the guest-worker program would change; it just recognizes agriculture's workforce needs and that changes must be made to help farmers.

California farmers praised the proposal, saying it would help them more easily hire workers on which they rely heavily, Ricardo Lopez of the Los Angeles Times reports. "Farmers struggle to hire enough domestic employees, so they rely on foreign employees willing to harvest America's food," California Farm Bureau president Paul Wenger told Lopez. He said reform of the guest-worker program would allow immigrants to contribute to communities by working in farming.

Dairy farmers, however, are not so happy. National Milk Producers Federation spokesman Chris Galen told Bob Meyer of Brownfield Agriculture News that the proposal is a good start, but it doesn't yet include provisions for dairy-farm workers to stay in the country for longer periods. Galen said a lot of changes will probably be offered and made before a final plan is passed, so he's waiting to see what President Obama announces today. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Rick Wood: Wisconsin dairy farmer)

The milk producers;' group is part of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, which has been pushing for reforms to the guest-worker program. A University of Wisconsin study discovered that more than 40 percent of farm workers on Wisconsin's dairy farms are immigrants, with almost 90 percent of them coming from Mexico, Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Jobs on dairy farms are year-round, but foreign workers can only get H-2A worker permits for seasonal jobs. Barrett reports that dairy-farm groups in Wisconsin have suggested that year-round permits be established so immigrants can work on dairy farms for longer periods of time. (Read more)

President Obama said today that the senators' proposals "are very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years."

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