Efforts Underway to Unify around an Agricultural Labor Fix
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Immigration reform is in the news daily, partly a byproduct of the intense presidential campaigns. President Obama is attempting to play down the record number of deportations that have happened under his watch, and to hold Republicans accountable for the lack of progress on comprehensive immigration reform. Governor Romney, for his part, wishes to downplay the extremely hard-line stance he took on immigration during the Republican primary.
While the candidates spar, the agricultural community is working to forge new consensus on an immigration solution specific to the needs of growers and producers. The two primary parties involved in the unity effort are the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), the nation's largest general farm organization, and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR), which represents several hundred organizations whose members grow or produce fruits, vegetables, nursery and greenhouse crops, meat, and dairy products. The American Nursery & Landscape Association is a national co-chair of ACIR.
A decade ago, ACIR and AFBF were joined in the effort to enact reform legislation for agriculture known as AgJOBS. But as the broader immigration debate heated up and turned ugly, the broad coalition backing AgJOBS began to falter. Disunity in the agricultural sector gave skittish politicians an easy out. "Some of my agricultural employer constituents want this, and others want that…when you come to agreement on what you all can live with, I will take a stand," was a common refrain.
Regardless of the presidential election outcome, there is little reason to expect a comprehensive immigration solution anytime soon. There is no political consensus behind a comprehensive fix, and continued high unemployment makes achieving consensus that much more difficult. However, many lawmakers see the need to act on discrete and compelling elements of immigration reform, such as those dealing with young people, agricultural workers, and more immigration opportunities for advanced degree graduates in science and engineering. There could be a window of possibility in a lame duck Congress, or more likely, during the first half of 2013.
Agricultural unity negotiations involving AFBF, ACIR, and several other organizations began last spring. AFBF also initiated an internal process which ran on a parallel track. Both groups seek a program that addresses the needs of all types of agricultural employers, across the country. The core elements of the emerging policy prescription include a new market-based program in which visa workers can choose and move among employers during the duration of their visa; a contract visa option more similar to the structure of the existing H-2A program, and a temporary residency option for current experienced workers with the possibility of longer-term status for at least some of these workers.
Agriculture, including greenhouse and nursery growers, must have practical, common sense legal workforce solutions. Labor instability and even shortages are causing farm losses and creating uncertainty as growers struggle to make long-term business planning decisions. While one cannot predict when a window of legislative – or administrative – opportunity might open, the thing we can control is how to prepare. This is what makes the ongoing efforts to achieve broad unity in agriculture, and then to reach out to farm worker interests and political champions, so vitally important.