In comments made at the Agriculture Outlook forum last week, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told attendees the United States needs “comprehensive immigration reform” and called on Congress to act without delay on the issue so vital to agriculture’s future. However, with Washington lawmakers deadlocked in election year politics, hopes for meaningful legislation being passed in a timely manner are quickly dwindling.

“To be competitive, the U.S. pork industry needs a viable and stable agricultural workforce,” according to a statement from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). “Comprehensive immigration reform legislation should recognize the unique needs of the agricultural sector such as permanent immigrant workers for pork production facilities and processing plants.”

“The good news is that agriculture has substantially made its case in terms of the need for reform,” said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. “The need for a modern and functional agricultural worker visa program has become a major sticking point for the passage of a mandatory E-Verify bill in the House.”

E-Verify is mandatory for some employers, such as those employers with federal contracts or subcontracts that contain the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) E-Verify clause and employers in certain states. More than 307,000 employers are enrolled in the program, with over 17 million cases created in the system in fiscal year 2011. There have been over 3.7 million cases created in the system in fiscal year 2012 (as of December 10, 2011).

Regelbrugge points to an impasse in Congress over the largely failed H2A program - legislation designed to allow non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform temporary agricultural labor. NPPC supports a temporary worker visa program.

In Congress, however, there is little consensus as to what to do about it.  “A bill introduced by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., would create a new, more flexible and market-based ag worker program structure,” Regelbrugge says. “Lungren’s bill, or a combination of it plus some improvements to H2A, are only likely to move in the House if mandatory E-Verify also moves forward.”

In the Senate, there is little sign of movement on the issue, though some conversations are underway among some reform-minded members.  An H2A-only approach is not viable in the Senate, nor should the livestock and dairy sectors settle for an H2A patch as their future lifeline or safety net, according to Regelbrugge.

“Our polarized politics and weak economy are a huge challenge to overcome,” Regelbrugge says. “There is no clear path for reform this year. Anything positive that does happen will need to be small, not comprehensive, relevant, and ultimately, bipartisan. However, the U.S. agriculture industry must be prepared for any window of opportunity.”

NPPC supports immigration reform legislation that secures the country’s borders in a way that is fair and just; allows access to a legal workforce but does not place undue burdens on employers; addresses the labor needs of specific industry sectors, including agriculture; and presents a common sense solution for the undocumented workers already in the United States.

Source: NPPC, Department of Homeland Security