The case for Congressional reform of the guest worker program for agriculture just got stronger, Tom Nassif believes.

Most American voters support a streamlined guest worker program for American growers and don’t believe migrant farm workers are taking U.S. jobs, a new survey sponsored by Western Growers reveals.

In a March 28 teleconference about the survey, Nassif, president of the Irvine, Calif.-based association, said the results confirm his long-held belief that Americans support the need for a guest worker program for growers.

The survey, conducted Jan. 22-25 with 1,000 likely voters, revealed that only 27% of those surveyed believe that immigrants who work in fields and packginghouses are a cause of unemployment.

Nassif said the idea for a survey came out of a conversation with Speaker of the House of Representatives Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. Boehner told Nassif that Republicans believe their constituents wouldn’t support a reformed guest worker program.

Nassif disagreed and commissioned a survey by The Tarrance Group.

“The fact is that the initial reaction of American voters, Democrats, Republicans, independents, conservatives — they had a 70% approval rating that we should have a sensible guest worker program for agriculture and they do not believe that these workers take American jobs,” he said.

The survey found 27% were opposed to the described program and 4% were unsure.

In fact, according to the survey, 74% of Republicans favored a guest worker program for agriculture.

Brian Nienaber, vice president at The Tarrance Group, said the results show only slight differences in responses between regions in the U.S.

“You have notably higher (support) in the Central Plains region, with slightly lower in the West and South Central,” he said.

Even with states with high unemployment rate (over 10%), Nienaber said 69% supported a streamlined guest worker program for agriculture.

“You usually see much larger regional breaks on issues depending on what part of the country, but we really don’t see much more than a 4% to 5% difference either way no matter how you slice it.”

Nassif said Western Growers hasn’t proposed or backed specific legislation yet to mirror the guest worker program described in the survey, but he said that is the goal.

“What we will propose as a bill will probably be something closer to what we wish for than what we might end up getting, but we need to get this out in front quickly,” Nassif said.

He said Western Growers and other agriculture groups favor an ag-first approach to immigration reform.

“It would have to be attached to another bill, and be just for agriculture,” he said.

However, Nassif said he doesn’t favor the approach of trying to attach the guest worker reform bill to the farm bill.

“I don’t believe we should do anything that jeopardizes the farm bill,” he said.

The survey revealed that 70% of voters surveyed said they would support a guest worker program that features all of these elements:

  • Employers must make a good faith effort to offer jobs to U.S. workers before hiring guest workers (86% favor).
  • Foreign guest workers could only enter through designated border crossings where their eligibility could be verified (85% favor).
  • Foreign guest workers would have both Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld from their pay, and Social Security taxes would be refunded once the guest workers returned home. Medicare taxes would treat uninsured patients (78% favor).
  • Foreign guest workers could stay up to 12 months with an option to renew for up to 12 months (72% favor).
  • Foreign guest workers would not be permitted to bring family with them (44% favor); and
  • Foreign workers in the U.S. illegally but have been employed on farms would be allowed to stay if they continue that work, and with no pathway to citizenship (40% favor).