The urgent need for AgJOBS legislation - The Hill

Nowhere is there a greater need for immigration reform than in agriculture.

It is estimated that 1.5 million laborers — or 60 percent of the nation’s 2.5 million farm workers — are undocumented.

These are workers who do their jobs with efficiency and learned skill, and they are willing to travel from farm to farm — following the harvest. Without them, many of our farms would not survive.

That’s why I introduced the bipartisan AgJOBS bill earlier this year with Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). While Congress grapples with comprehensive immigration reform, I strongly believe that finding a way to secure a legal agricultural workforce needs to be a top priority.

I have talked with farmers who are suffering greatly because of these worker shortages. There’s Toni Scully, a pear farmer in Lake County, Calif., who last September watched her beautiful Bartlett pears rot on the trees because she couldn’t find enough workers to harvest the crop.

And there’s Vito Chiesa, who told me he may have to rip out his entire peach orchard if he can’t find enough workers in the coming seasons. His family has grown peaches for generations, but without workers, they simply can’t keep the business going.

In 2006, growers in California reported that their harvesting crews were down by as much as 20 percent. And if the labor shortage continues, the costs will be in the stratosphere: $3 billion a year in the short term, and as much as $4.1 billion a year in the long term. Just in California.

But the fact is this is much bigger than California.

It’s a dairy farmer in Vermont. It’s a citrus grower in Florida. It’s an apple grower in Michigan. All face uncertainty of what will happen next season if the worker shortage continues, and all signs indicate it will.
The simple truth is that there is a solution; it just needs to be implemented. There are plenty of people willing and able to do the work — but there isn’t a workable legal path. And these workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

The AgJOBS bill would do that for undocumented agriculture laborers.

First, AgJOBS would create a five-year pilot program to identify undocumented agricultural workers and legalize the immigration status for those who have been working in American agriculture for at least 150 workdays over the previous two years. This pilot program provides incentives for current undocumented farm workers to continue working in agriculture for the next three to five years, ensuring that farmers and growers will have the workers they need now.

The second part of AgJOBS would reform the current H-2A agricultural guest worker program to make it more realistic and effective.

Today, the system is essentially unworkable. Of the estimated 2.5 million farm workers now working in the United States, only 30,000 to 40,000 workers come in through the H-2A program.

Growers have told me that when they use the H-2A program, they just can’t get workers on a timely basis. And the result is that the farming industry must rely on an undocumented workforce.

So our bill would cut through the red tape and shorten the process from 60 days to 2 or 3 days. This will mean that workers can come here on a temporary basis and fill the jobs that may be open for only a short, but critical, period.

This bill is the product of 10 years of negotiations among farmers, growers and farm worker advocates.
Last year, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included AgJOBS. But the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill were never resolved, and the legislation stalled.
This year, whether it’s part of a larger bill or brought to the floor on its own, AgJOBS needs to move quickly.

The bill again has strong bipartisan support, with 26 co-sponsors joining Sen. Craig and me in this effort; over 880 groups and farmers support its passage; and a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll demonstrates that 62 percent of Americans believe that undocumented workers who are living and working in the United States now should have the opportunity to work in this country legally. 

We have created a workable solution to the agricultural labor crisis in AgJOBS, and we must all join together to pass this important bill. The time has come to enact AgJOBS into law.