Ray Gilmer, United Fresh Produce Association
Ray Gilmer, United Fresh Produce Association

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up immigration reform, the day after President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has voiced support for the principals of immigration reform announced by the White House.

Add to that the immigration reform proposals advanced by a bipartisan group of senators, the so-called “gang of eight,” and it appears that the Senate is making the issue a real priority this year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have spearheaded representation of agriculture’s labor needs in the Senate’s immigration reform discussions. We look forward to working with them and others in the Senate to keep the reform momentum going.

It’s a tougher situation in the House of Representatives, where the Judiciary Committee had an immigration hearing last week. Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and other Republicans on the committee fully appreciate the challenges in passing a comprehensive reform measure.

Some political observers think a piecemeal approach to addressing immigration issues, including farm labor, has a better chance of passage.

Also this week in Washington, United’s Government Relations Council convenes for strategy meetings and face-to-face dialogue with policymakers from Congress and the Obama administration.

The produce industry’s leading executives, representing commodity groups, associations and companies from across the nation, contribute their time and expertise on the council to present a unified voice for our industry.

For immigration reform, that unified voice is even louder this year thanks to a new alliance United has helped to form for advancing solutions for farm labor needs. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition proposes bold new principles for meaningful reform for all of agriculture.

In addition to United, founding members include American Farm Bureau, American Nursery & Landscape Association, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, U.S. Apple Association, Western Growers and many more.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition represents a fresh approach to crafting real solutions for farm employers.

For example, the AWC recommends an uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program that would allow for greater flexibility than the current H-2A guest worker program.

This new program proposes that USDA be the administrator, whereas the current guest worker program is administered by the Department of Labor.

The coalition proposes adding this visa program while leaving the current H-2A program intact, thereby allowing employers to continue using H-2A at their option.

Several lawmakers seem receptive to the idea of a worker visa program administered by USDA. The idea also gets support from many farm employers, who believe a USDA-run program could be more responsive to their unique workforce needs.

For the past several weeks, United has been on the Hill getting time with many of the new faces in the 113th Congress, as well as lawmakers from key states and districts who can play pivotal roles on our priority issues.

Especially on the farm labor issue, members of Congress appreciate the chance to learn more and better understand the challenges and costs facing produce industry employers.

In the weeks ahead, if you are asked to make a call, write a note or come to Washington for a meeting with your members of Congress, I hope you’ll take the time to make your voice heard about the need for a stable and viable workforce for our industry.

There’s a real sense that meaningful immigration reform could happen this year and, when it comes to representing our industry, there’s no more powerful voice than yours.

Read more about the Agriculture Workforce Coalition’s proposals and the full roster of supporting organizations at www.agworkforcecoalition.org.

Ray Gilmer is vice president of issues management and communication for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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