Tom Karst
Tom Karst

The House Judiciary Committee is "at it" again on immigration, E-verify and guest worker programs for agriculture.

The subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement held a hearing today and heard testimony from several agriculture friendly witnesses. Find the link to the hearing here. As usual, there were words full of sound and fury, signifying nothing definitive so far.

Some quotes from the testimony: 

Gary Black, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Agriculture, talks about a possible way to use current undocumented immigrants in agriculture: 

In testimony before a Senate subcommittee last fall, I introduced a suggestion for a penalty-based work authorization permit. Following a limited signup period, those workers who come forward would be subjected to several stiff penalties: a $10,000 fine payable over five years and a mandatory purchase of a biometrically secure, "agriculture only" work permit at a cost of $500 annually.

In addition, he or she would face immediate deportation for violating the requirements of the permit. Permit holders should be required to forfeit prior social security withholdings. Future social security withholdings, both employer and employee contributions, should be dedicated to a required market-based health insurance product. A program of this nature should require fierce employer sanctions immediately following the end of the signup period. Our country needs a legally documented workforce and a reliable management system to ensure integrity.

Paul Wenger, president, California Farm Bureau Federation, speaks of the lack of a domestic workforce.

Experience also shows us there is no realistic prospect of a domestic work force for agriculture. We in California have learned the hard way that few Americans seek agricultural jobs. In the late 1990’s, facilitated by the leadership of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a multi-county welfare-to farm-work program was launched in the Central Valley. Regional unemployment rates ranged from nine to 12 percent; in some localities, unemployment exceeded 20%.

State and county agencies and grower associations collaborated to identify cropping patterns, labor needs, training, transportation, and other impediments. Out of over 100,000 prospective “welfare to work” placements, three individuals were successfully placed. In the aftermath of the program, several employment agencies indicated – in writing – that they would no longer seek to place the unemployed in seasonal agricultural work. Other examples of this “on-the-ground” truth include the UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign, which placed a total of 9 people in agricultural jobs, few of whom lasted more than a few days.

Lee Wicker, deputy director, North Caolina Grower's Association, talks about the need for a reformed guest worker program:

Only a workable and predictable guestworker program will enable farmers to continue to plant and harvest crops and provide wholesome food for our nation. This Congress has an opportunity and an obligation to fix this problem or we will continue to lose our food production to foreign competitors.

NCGA agrees with Representative Kingston and Senator Chambliss' efforts to reform the ag guestworker program. NCGA also supports and appreciates Chairman Smith's efforts to level the playing field for all agriculture employers and we endorse his approach to providing America's farmers with a practical and predictable guestworker program. 

Bruce Goldstein, president, Farmworker Justice, Washington, D.C.

There is an urgent need for Congressional action in response to increased deportations and other immigration enforcement, harsh anti-immigrant state laws, proposals for state-level foreign-worker visa programs, and proposals to mandate employers’ use of the E-Verify system. The common-sense and moral solution on which many diverse constituencies agree is a program offering undocumented farmworkers the opportunity to earn legal immigration status.

Regrettably, several Members of Congress refuse to embrace such workable and humane solutions. Representatives Lungren, Smith and Kingston have put forth proposals for new bureaucratic guestworker programs that would have high costs for American jobs and American society. None of the proposals would address the presence of the undocumented workforce and they would all subject both U.S. workers and foreign workers to low wages and harsh working conditions. The guestworker proposals are being offered as an apparent trade-off to obtain the support of the agricultural industry for mandatory employment verification legislation.

TK: Will a reformed guest worker program for agriculture be enough for industry advocates to support mandatory E-verify? Not likely at this point, so this issue is still more sound and fury more than substance and progress.

Join the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group.Check out the stats from LinkedIn on the growth of the group.

Join the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group on Google.

Like us on Facebook here.

Bookmark the Fresh Talk home page.

Follow me on twitter @tckarst

E-mail me at tkarst@thepacker.com