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Immigration bill gains momentum with Senate committee OK

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congressA comprehensive immigration reform bill has moved from the Senate Judicial Committee’s consideration to the full Senate for debate. The American Farm Bureau Federation says one big question the bill should raise is whether Americans want to import farm labor or farm products.

“For better or for worse, we rely on an immigrant labor force in agriculture, and we need a way to keep those experienced workers to ensure we have access to that stable workforce,” said Kristi Boswell, AFBF labor specialist. “Seventy percent of our workforce is falsely documented. We need to make sure we have a safe, affordable food product, and the only way we can do that is to be sure that it’s grown here on American soil.

“It really comes down to either we import our labor or we import our food.”

Boswell said she is optimistic that Congress will make needed improvements to the nation’s immigration system.

“This process has been so dramatically different than past attempts, and I really commend the Senate for doing what they can to facilitate the discussion,” she said. “All the 300 amendments were posted online for review. All the markup sessions were streamed live. Every introducer of an amendment got full time to debate and to fully vet the amendment. Allowing even the strongest opponents to vet and discuss and debate their amendments makes everyone more comfortable with what the ultimate product is.”

The agreement has two main components. The first is a “blue card” program in which experienced agricultural workers would get a blue card work visa. That could cover those working in the United States without permission or under the current H-2A farm labor program.

The second component is creation of a new guestworker program that would replace H-2A. “That allows long-term stability, ensuring that we could access guestworkers into the future,” Boswell said. “The program provides for a three-year visa term. It provides for employment arrangements on contract or at will, so workers would have flexibility and could migrate and follow seasonal patterns. And, also, employers have the stability of a contract if that’s needed. There are fair and equitable labor conditions and standards ensuring we’re treating these workers fairly.”

The agreement would allow workers to return to their countries when seasonal farm work is done.

AFBF President Bob Stallman said that would let the government focus border security on real security risks.

“We know that one of the best ways to improve border security is to create a legal, workable way for farm workers to enter our country,” Stallman said. “If we do not have to waste resources locking up lettuce harvesters, we can focus on keeping those with criminal intentions out of our country.”

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