Taking a giant step closer to giving U.S. growers a more certain labor supply, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation by a comfortable margin of 68 to 32.

Senate bill 744 — the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act — has grower-friendly provisions to legalize the existing farm labor workforce and create a new agricultural guest worker program. Immigration reform faces an uncertain future in the House of Representatives, where House Speaker John Boehnor, R-Ohio, said lawmakers will create a different version.

Tom Nassif, president of the Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said he was grateful for the work of the Senate passing the legislation June 27, and it could make a huge difference for domestic fruit and vegetable production.

“If this bill or something very close to it passes in the House so that we are able to conference the two bills, the result should rejuvenate agricultural production in the United States,” he said.

Nassif said the agricultural labor provisions in the legislation have the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. and reverse the trend of U.S. fruit and vegetable production moving to other countries.

Thanking the Senate for its vote, Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Association, said the bill will ease the burden on agricultural employers, create more jobs and help the economy.

Nassif said it is “absolutely essential” that the House moves forward with their work on immigration reform.

“Some people are saying the House may not get to it before the August recess, but I think conventional wisdom says that if it isn’t done by then, it probably won’t happen,” Nassif said.

A statement from the Agricultural Workforce Coalition praised the Senate, particularly senators instrumental in helping reach an agreement between grower and labor interests to craft the agricultural provisions. The group also said it looks forward to working with the House of Representatives to advance immigration reform.

“We encourage House members to ensure that any legislation contains meaningful reform to meet agriculture’s current and future labor needs,” the statement said.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said the Senate’s legislation includes a “fair and workable” farm labor provision for U.S. agriculture.

“A comprehensive agricultural labor plan that works for all sectors of agriculture and across all regions of our nation is long overdue,” according to a statement from the Farm Bureau.

Stallman said the bill balances security and labor needs.

“With less time and resources wasted locking up lettuce harvesters, the focus can shift to where it properly belongs: keeping those with criminal intentions out of our country,” he said.

Stallman said the bureau looks forward to working with House members to pass responsible immigration reform legislation that includes an earned adjustment for experienced undocumented agricultural workers and a new, flexible guest worker program.


Agricultural labor provisions

Current undocumented farmworkers will be eligible to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to remain working in agriculture.

Ag workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours before Dec, 31, 2012, are eligible for Blue Card status.

After a minimum of five years, workers who fulfill their Blue Card work requirements in U.S. agriculture will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions and pay a fine.

A new agricultural guest worker program will be established, with two work options:


  •  An “at will” option will allow workers to enter the country for a specific job offer from an authorized agricultural employer, under a three-year visa. Employees will then be able to move within the country, working at will for any other authorized agricultural employer during that time. Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance to these workers.
  •  A“contract-based” option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific contract for a specific amount of work from an authorized employer. This will also provide for a three-year visa and require employers to provide housing or a housing allowance.


All guest workers will be paid an agreed-upon wage under the terms of this agreement.

There is a visa cap for the first five years of the program while current workers are participating in the Blue Card program. The secretary of agriculture has the authority to modify that cap if circumstances in agricultural labor require.

The new program will be administered by the Department of Agriculture.