Immigration Reform Headed for the Senate Floor

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

After months of negotiation and intense debate for weeks in the Judiciary Committee, the U.S. Senate is expected to begin consideration of S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, the week of June 10.

More commonly known as immigration reform, S. 744, is a comprehensive measure important to the future of many sectors of the American economy, but none more than agriculture. The time-sensitive nature of many farm, ranch, dairy, and custom harvesting operations creates a set of special circumstances for an industry fundamental to the lives of every American. An effective immigration policy – one that facilitates the employment of skilled seasonal labor from other countries and sets out a path to citizenship for those undocumented agricultural workers who have long worked in food and agriculture -- is vital to the economic health of the United States and to the resilience and livelihoods of rural and agricultural communities in all 50 states.

That is why immigration reform was identified early on by AGree’s Advisory Committee as a key element for promoting positive change in the food and agriculture sector.

S. 744 is the only legislation that currently meets the principles established by AGree through open and transparent dialogue: Those principles include:

  • Build a legal, more stable workforce in agriculture;
  • Develop a practical and economically viable guest worker program that allows employers to hire legal foreign workers and protects foreign and U.S. farm workers;
  • Ensure quality of life, good working conditions, and opportunities for food and agriculture workers; and
  • Provide more opportunities for farm workers to develop skills and advance their careers within the food and agriculture sector.

A stable, legal workforce is critical to the ability of American farmers and ranchers to produce nutritious and affordable foods, especially those perishable, labor-intensive products like fruits, vegetables, meat and milk that are so important for healthy diets. The significant productivity gain made by farmers and ranchers during the last 50 years has depended in part on the skills of hired, often foreign-born, farm workers. Of the approximately two million agricultural workers in the United States, it is estimated that at least half are undocumented immigrants.

Specifically relevant to agriculture, the bill reported out of the Judiciary Committee would create a blue card for existing agricultural immigrants, and would also create an agricultural guest worker program to address the future flow of workers.

Because of the fundamental importance of this issue, on June 3, AGree sent a letter of support to every U.S. Senator, urging passage of the bill “without substantial modification,” when it is brought to the Senate floor for consideration.

AGree has supported efforts to overcome volatile and divisive differences that have doomed past reform efforts and has worked with other groups to help create an enabling environment for change. In July 2012, for example, AGree and the Farm Foundation hosted a symposium, bringing together agricultural growers, leaders of farm worker organizations, advocates, and others for open conversations around immigration policies. Participants also discussed the role foreign-born labor plays in livestock production, grain production, and food processing.

That meeting, and others, helped change the tone of the discussion, making it possible months later for the Senate’s “gang of eight” to come together in a spirit of trust and compromise, which has resulted in S. 744.

Passage of comprehensive immigration reform by this Congress is not a certainty, however. Presently, there is no comprehensive bill that has been proposed in the House of Representatives and possible amendments, if adopted on the floor of the Senate, could potentially shatter the delicate balance holding together S. 744.

While we remain hopeful, there is much work to be done. AGree will continue pushing for passage of this important bill and should legislation emerge, will remain involved to ensure that the process for allowing foreign-born workers into the U.S. is practical and fair for everyone.

Deborah Atwood is the executive director of AGree