For additional information on the proposed legislation, please see "Immigration bill would mandate E-Verify"

Produce groups, others support immigration reform(CORRECTED) Proposed immigration reform that would phase out H-2A visas and mandate a beefed up version of the E-Verify program should secure a stable and affordable work force for agricultural industries, according to members of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition.

“The work force has been one of our largest challenges,” said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, one of 11 groups that founded the coalition.

“We know many of our workers today are undocumented … but they are doing work that many Americans are not willing to do.”

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, another of the coalition’s founding entities, said the legislation introduced April 17 by Sen. Charles Schumer and co-sponsored by seven other senators would help resolve the labor issue. He also said the diverse group that formed the coalition shows the desperate need for reform.

Produce groups, others support immigration reform“We brought ag producers and labor together in a once in a generation opportunity with the purpose of getting a legal and stable workforce,” Stuart said.

A late comer to the coalition was the United Farm Workers, led by president Arturo Rodriguez. The group joined the coalition’s effort last week. The coalition represents 69 agriculture-related entities, most of which are in the fresh produce industry.

“This is a historic moment,” Rodriguez said April 17 during the coalition’s press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“With this (legislation) farmworkers would no longer have to fear deportation … and the compromises on wage rates that were reached should create stability for farmers and workers alike.”

The 844-page bill is called the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. It includes sweeping reforms and security measures, but the Ag Workforce Coalition focused its efforts on about 200 pages that specifically address immigrant agricultural workers.

Co-sponsors of the bill are Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, S.C., John McCain, Ariz., Marco Rubio, Fla., and Jeff Flake, Ariz.; and Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez, N.J., Richard Durbin, Ill. and Michael Bennet, Colo.

Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association — another founding entity of the coalition — said the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers is “broken beyond repair.”

She said the 20 billion apples grown in the U.S. annually have to be picked one at a time by hand, creating a seasonal need for about 70,000 harvest workers.

“This bill sets up a workable program,” Foster said during the press conference.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, another founding entity of the coalition, said the agricultural components of the immigration reform bill took months of negotiations.

He is confident the legislation will make it to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law, despite widespread reports that many conservatives in Congress plan to stall it indefinitely.

“This coalition will play a significant role in immigration reform being passed this year,” Nassif said.

Nassif also said that he did not think members of the fresh produce industry would be troubled by the bill’s mandatory use of what some are describing as an expanded version of the current E-Verify program.

The existing E-Verify program will be repealed if the bill becomes law.

“E-Verify has always been supported by our membership,” Nassif said.

Stenzel from United Fresh had similar thoughts.

He said that opposition to E-Verify in the produce industry in the past has been related to the mechanics of the program, not its principals.

Nassif and Stenzel also voiced strong support for the wage requirements of the bill, as did the apple association’s Foster and Florida’s Stuart.

The bill defines hourly wages based on job classifications such as graders/sorters, agricultural equipment operators and farm workers.

For example, the wages for the lowest paid of those three classifications — farm workers would be set at $9.17 an hour for 2014, rising to $9.40 and $9.64 for 2015 and 2016, respectively. 

Note on correction: Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, was incorrectly identified in the photo caption. He is seated third from the left.