(UPDATED COVERAGE, JAN. 17) A new coalition of farm groups — including those serving specialty crops — plans to present a unified voice for agriculture as Congress considers immigration reform.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition backs a solution that includes an earned adjustment in status for current farm workers and a program to ensures access to a workforce even as harvesters move to other seasonal crops.
The coalition is committed both to meet the needs of seasonal employers and those farm employers who provide year-round jobs, said Frank Gasperini, the executive vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based council.
Gasperini said agriculture allies hope Congress and President Obama are ready to work on immigration reform, despite recent discussions on gun control and the federal debt ceiling.
“A lot of our allies are talking to people on both sides that seem amendable to doing something to help the ag labor situation and the immigration situation in general, so now we have to hope people don’t get so crosswise with each other over two contentious issues that they stop talking again,” Gasperini said.
The coalition’s plan calls for legislative reform that includes both a program to provide access to a legal workforce and an adjustment for current experienced unauthorized agricultural workers.
Gasperini said upwards of a million agriculture workers need an adjustment in status to become legal.
The coalition proposes a new uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program that would allow employer and employee choice and flexibility by including options for contract employees and employees that move from employer to employer.
Administration officials said late last year that President Obama wants legislation to be prepared in time for his inauguration on Jan. 21. While that may be too ambitious, President Obama is still expected to make immigration reform a big part of his second term goals, Gasperini said.
Nancy Foster, president of Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association, said 20 billion apples must be picked each year by hand.
“Each of those apples has to be touched by hand and harvesting apples is skilled work,” she said.
While the industry is optimistic about the future because of strong consumer demand, Foster said an ample supply of workers is necessary for growers to thrive.
“We either are going to grow (apples) here or we are going to import them,” she said. “It is all built on the need for a reliable stable workforce.”