Passage of the bipartisan Senate immigration overhaul bill would
immediately improve U.S. agricultural production, creating positive economic
effects that would spread across the broader economy, the Obama administration
reported in a study released Wednesday.
The bill includes a "blue card" program that would grant work visas to about 1.5 million unauthorized agricultural workers and provides them and their dependents a five-year fast track to legal residency. In addition, it creates a temporary-worker program that would allow 112,000 foreigners to work on U.S. farms each year.
The report says the influx of temporary workers would increase production in the fruit and vegetable sectors 2.4 percent and create 9,426 jobs in California by 2020.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the report presents "a compelling case for retaining and expanding the immigrant agricultural workforce."
In an interview with The Star, Vilsack said the growth in agricultural production would expand job opportunities for U.S. citizens and authorized workers.
"Agriculture is generally responsible for supporting 1 out of every 12 jobs," Vilsack said. "Products have to be processed, packaged, moved and sold. All of those steps create opportunities for job growth."
A broad coalition of agricultural groups and farmworker advocates has coalesced in support of the bill. Support is particularly strong in the California agricultural industry, in which an estimated 73 percent of the workforce is unauthorized workers and severe labor shortages are being felt statewide.
As the pace of illegal immigration has slowed dramatically in recent years, Ventura County growers report the most severe labor shortages they've experienced in decades. The situation has placed growers in a double-edged economic bind: They are losing production because they have few workers and also must pay higher wages to attract workers from an insufficient labor pool.
"Farmers and producers in California have a decision to make: What will the market bear, and how many workers do I need to produce what the market will bear?" Vilsack said. "They are making decisions not to produce as much as they could, which is not maximizing productivity.
"The Western Growers Association believes that thousands of acres of production have moved to other countries."
The temporary-worker provisions in the Senate bill have long been sought by the agricultural industry. The bill would phase out the existing H-2A temporary visas for agricultural workers and replace them with two new visas: one for foreign workers with employment contracts and another for foreign workers with an offer for employment.
For the first five years, those visas would be capped at 112,333. In later years, the secretary of agriculture would adjust the cap annually based on labor needs.
Vilsack said those who get temporary visas will be ineligible for a pathway to legal status and will have to return to their home countries.
He said the legalization of existing unauthorized farmworkers combined with the temporary visas would virtually eliminate the industry's reliance on unauthorized workers. Going forward, agricultural employers would be subject to a mandate to use the national E-Verify system to confirm the legal status of new workers, he said.
The report finds the agricultural industry's labor challenges are not confined to border states such as California, Arizona and Texas, which have historically relied heavily upon immigrant labor. It says noncitizens make up more than one-quarter of the agricultural labor force in 21 states. The list includes states that are as demographically and geographically diverse as Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina and Oregon.
Vilsack said immigrant workers, who have historically been associated with the harvesting of fruits and vegetables, have now also become essential in such sectors as dairy and livestock production.
"The reality is that every state is losing out on economic opportunity," he said. "Virtually every state produces something that requires labor to produce it."
The release of the report and Vilsack's extensive round of media interviews to highlight its findings came as the White House stepped up its efforts to pressure the House of Representatives to pass the immigration bill passed by the Senate or something similar to the legislation.
(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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