Roundtable allows farmers to weigh in on immigration reform

mark-warnerSen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., said the so-called Gang of Eight’s current immigration bill “is the best chance in 35 years to fix a broken immigration system.” Warner announced that to a room full of farmers and agribusiness professionals during a May 3 round-table discussion about immigration reform at Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s headquarters.

About 30 people attended to give Warner input on the proposed legislation.

“I want to hear your concerns, because we still have time,” he said.

He outlined the highlights of the bill, which include a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants currently in the United States illegally; increased border security; employer verification requirements; and an opportunity for more high-skilled and guest workers to enter the country.

Many of the producers attending the meeting rely on the federal H-2A or H-2B foreign worker program for their seasonal labor needs.

“Over the last decade or so, all of agriculture has begun to use foreign workers,” said Wilmer Stoneman, VFBF associate director of governmental relations.

“I think getting legal status for those 11 million helps all of you,” Warner said. “That’s going to be the big kahuna of this legislation.”

But meeting participants were more concerned about wage rates required under the proposed legislation.

Several Pittsylvania County dairy operators spoke out about hourly wage increases.

Roger Jefferson, a Pittsylvania County dairy farmer, expressed concerns about how they would affect his bottom line.

“I could just quit the business, but a lot of people can’t walk away from it and I don’t want to walk away from it,” Jefferson said.

“I am a little concerned about the wage rate,” Warner responded.

Others shared concerns about the requirement that farmers give American laborers the first crack at seasonal job openings. They said it’s next to impossible to get American workers to fill the jobs, and many of those they hire don’t actually show up for work. By that time, the opportunity to hire foreign workers for the season has passed.

Troy Simpson, who owns a landscape business and hires foreign workers, said he tried filling jobs with American workers, “and it just didn’t work.”

He had 150 referrals from the Virginia Employment Commission; 74 were scheduled for interviews, but only 34 showed up. Six of the 34 reported for work, and only one is still working for Simpson.

The assertion that immigrants are taking Americans’ jobs, Simpson said, “is a falsehood.”

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