David McNew/Getty Images
A farmer told the House Judiciary Committee that whether Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform or not, the agriculture community needs a guest worker program "now."
The need for skilled farm workers was the topic of a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday. It’s one part of the immigration puzzle that most lawmakers agree on – in principle. The devil is in the details.
Chalmers Carr, a farmer who grows peaches in South Carolina, told the House Judiciary Committee there aren’t enough legal workers in America to pick the crops. He said whether Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform or not, the agriculture community needs "a guest worker program now."
Several farmers testified the current H2-A visa program is cumbersome, choked with red tape, and doesn't provide enough workers.
But the debate over farm labor divides in the same way as the larger immigration debate: what to do about the estimated 11 million undocumented people already in this country. Several lawmakers estimate non-citizens make up anywhere from half to 80% of the workforce in America's farm fields.
The Republican head of the House Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, says he wants undocumented farmworkers to “participate legally” in American agriculture.
Bob Stallman, head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told lawmakers farmers also support legalization.
But Democrats and the United Farm Workers Union want any immigration overhaul to include a path to citizenship. Giev Kashkooli, a vice president with the UFW, called the million or more undocumented farm workers "heroes" who deserve, "at the very least," the right to apply for permanent legal status with a roadmap to citizenship. Otherwise, he said, we'll follow what he called Europe's "failed experiment of second-class legal status."
But farmer Carr told lawmakers that after the 1986 immigration reform law granted "amnesty," previously undocumented workers left the fields for better jobs, and farmers were left once again looking for skilled labor. A permanent guest worker program, he said, would satisfy the ongoing need for farm workers.
The disagreements were clear, but the discussion was civil, something absent from many earlier immigration hearings. San Jose Democrat Zoe Lofgren was optimimstic. She's part of a bi-partisan group of lawmakers working on a comprehensive immigration proposal. "Even though we don’t have agreement yet," she said, "it seems to me that there’s the elements for getting an agreement here. And that’s a piece of good news."
On Wednesday, the committee tackles another part of comprehensive immigration reform: the electronic worker verification program known as E-Verify.