FARM BUREAU CALLS FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM
NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Patrick O'Brien, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, speaking at an issues conference at the organization's 89th annual convention, cited three major points the agricultural community needs from immigration reform.
Agriculture must have: a simplified guest worker program that supplies 500,000-750,000 legal migrant and stationary foreign workers for agriculture on a reliable, recurring basis; an effective guest worker wage set at the prevailing market wage; and a compromise with labor rights groups on treatment of guest workers that allows the program to work and farmers to operate.
According to O'Brien, the farm workforce has stabilized at about 3 million; 2 million farm family workers and 1 million hired workers.
"Attracting and holding 1 million American hired workers is virtually impossible even with employment alternatives and worker preferences. We see two approaches to getting there. One approach is to seek wholesale legislative reform. Alternatively, we can work at the margin, piece-by-piece on rule-making to try to make the existing program work. We're going to continue pushing hard for wholesale legislation, but incremental changes may be what gets us where we need to go and that's what AFBF is working to accomplish," O'Brien said.
Joining O'Brien at the conference on immigration was Denise Hammond, principal at Hammond Immigration Law and Counsel, Tobin, O'Connor and Ewing.
"Agriculture, more than any other industry, faces a very difficult dilemma," said Hammond, "On the one hand, farmers face liability, civil as well as criminal, for employing undocumented workers. On the other hand, there are not sufficient U.S. workers to meet farm needs."
According to Hammond, there have been significant increases in administrative fines for undocumented workers since 2004. The Office of Immigration Control and Enforcement within the Department of Homeland Security is focusing on "reckless" hiring violations resulting in criminal charges for money laundering, identification theft and harboring illegal immigrants.
In the year 2006, Hammond said, "There were over 4,300 arrests in worksite enforcement cases, more than seven times the number of arrests in 2002 and more than $30 million in fines were assessed against employers in fiscal year 2007."
Hammond also pointed to huge increases in criminal arrests with only 25 occurring in 2002 and 863 in 2007.
"It is very important for people like you who have a story to tell to influence the public debate. Unfortunately, the debate," said Hammond, "has focused on the extent of an undocumented workforce and the cost of supporting them. No one is advocating that an employee or individual should ignore the law, but the fact remains, the immigration laws are broken. What we have is a situation where the labor market needs are too strong to be held back. It's like setting a 35 mph speed limit on an expressway. The immigration law has to be brought in synch with the demands of the marketplace."