Farm, labor groups reach key immigration reform agreement

By Dave Natzke


Dairy and agricultural organizations are praising an agreement on immigration reform reached by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), the United Farm Workers (UFW) and key Senators engaged in the process. 

The framework and objectives of the agreement represent a positive step toward providing America’s dairy farmers access to a legal workforce now and in the future, according to Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of the the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). NMPF is a member of AWC.

 Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen (WUD), a founding member of AWC, praised U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Orin Hatch (R-Utah), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) for helping foster the agreement. Rubio and Bennet are members of the Senate “Gang of 8,” a bipartisan group working on immigration reform. Other members of the group include Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) , John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). 

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, also an AWC member, added his praise, noting it is a positive step in what will still be a long process.

“The framework and objectives are a positive step toward achieving meaningful immigration reform,” Stallman said. “We look forward to working with Senate and House leaders as comprehensive immigration reform legislation is introduced and moves its way through Congress.”

“For many farmers across the country, finding a sufficient number of workers to harvest crops or care for animals is the biggest challenge they face in running their businesses,” Kozak said. “There is a shortage of U.S. workers willing and able to perform farm work. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to ensuring that American consumers continue to enjoy abundant and affordable food on their grocery store shelves.”


UFW: Workers a step closer to legal status

According to the UFW, the proposal will be included as part of the comprehensive bill which will now include both a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and a separate process towards legalization and citizenship for farm workers. Farm workers will have the option to apply for paperwork to legalize their status in the U.S., either through the regular process for non-agricultural workers, or through the special process created for those working in the agriculture industry.

“Under the proposed new immigration process, farm workers would be able to work in the fields without fear of getting deported immediately, and will be able to reunite with their families in a relatively short period of time,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. “The bill would give professional farm workers presently in the U.S., who have been contributing to our country, temporary legal status and the right to earn a green card in the future by continuing to work in agriculture. 

"Farm workers are the backbone of our agriculture industry here in the United States and a speedier process toward proper documentation provides an incentive for those farm workers who are currently working in agriculture to continue working in agriculture," Rodriguez added.

“Farm workers are one step closer to winning legal status and the much-earned recognition for their contributions to the United States. We believe this compromise could be a vehicle for improving the working conditions and job opportunities for farm workers,” Rodriguez concluded.


Dairy’s needs

With an estimated 58% of current U.S. dairy farm workers born in a country other than the United States, dairy has a big stake in the current immigration reform debate. And, due to its political nature, immigration reform faces a small window of opportunity, AFBF’s Kristi Boswell told participants of the National Dairy Producers Conference (NDPC), held April 7-9, in Indianapolis, Ind.

Congressional reform proposals are being unveiled almost daily. But, Boswell warned dairy co-op leaders if there is no consensus by August, this latest opportunity may be lost.

Noting she is a third generation of a farm family who did not return to the farm, Boswell said “we aren't raising farm workers in this country anymore, and we have to have a foreign-born workforce to this work. To accomplish this, we need a visa program.”

NMPF’s Jamie Castaneda said his organization will continue to work to craft a dairy-friendly plan. Among features: “legalizing” the current workforce to stabilize availability and reduce fears of deportation; and creating a market-based program with long-term visas, allowing dairy producers to hire workers on a contract or at-will basis. It transitions the program from the Department of Labor to USDA.

Both Boswell and Castaneda said the current H-2A program has become impossible to use, with no access for dairy. 

The agreement has provided dairy leaders with cautious optimism immigration reform can be achieved this year.

“The coalition is committed including an agricultural guest worker program and supporting the general framework negotiated in any final immigration reform package,” Kozak said. ”As members of Congress begin the process of drafting legislative language, we look forward to working with them to ensure that the bill details reflect the goals and intent of this framework agreement.”

Additional information on the AWC can be found on its website



AWC Proposal for Reform


• U.S. agriculture faces a critical shortage of workers every year, as citizens are largely unwilling to engage in these rigorous activities and guestworker programs are unable to respond to the marketplace.  This situation makes our farms and ranches less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer.  Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to agriculture and to the U.S. economy.



• This crisis must be addressed through legislative reform that includes both a program (the Agricultural Worker Program component) to provide access to a legal workforce into the future and an adjustment for current experienced unauthorized agricultural workers (the Current Workforce component).


Agricultural Worker Program

The uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program (“AWP”) will ensure agriculture’s future legal workforce. The AWP allows both employer and employee choice and flexibility by including two options:


1. “At-Will” employees have the freedom to move from employer to employer without any contractual commitment.  They would have a visa term of up to 11 months with USDA registered employers and then return home for 30 days.  There would be no limit on the number of times a person could obtain the 11-month visa.

2. Contract employees commit to work for an employer for a fixed period of time and would have a visa term of up to 12 months (renewable indefinitely), and conditioned upon a commitment to return to their home country for at least 30 days over a 3-year period.


Current Workforce

In order to minimize the impact on current economic activity, the AWC supports an adjustment of status for experienced but unauthorized agricultural workers who currently reside in the U.S.  This adjustment should include the following components:

• These workers have a future obligation to work for a number of days annually in agriculture for several years.

• Upon completion of this future work obligation, the workers could obtain permanent legal status and the right to work in whatever industries they choose, including agriculture.



Farmers and ranchers have long experienced difficulty in obtaining workers who are willing and able to work on farms and in fields.  Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and are often transitory.  To most U.S. residents seeking employment, these conditions are not attractive.  A number of studies document this fact, and farm worker representatives also acknowledged this in recent congressional testimony.  Yet, for many prospective workers from other countries, these jobs present real economic opportunities.

In times of shortages farmers have relied on these foreign workers who are admitted under a government sponsored temporary worker program known as H-2A and on workers who appear to have legal status to be working in the United States.  The demand for foreign workers is heightened due to not only a lack of a domestic workforce, but also the reverse migration of workers from the U.S. to Mexico, historic levels of immigration enforcement and bipartisan congressional commitment to a credible work authorization system through mandatory E-Verify. All AWC members agree that those factors, along with an increasingly rigid and burdensome H-2A program demonstrate the need for a new approach.

Reforms to the immigration system can assure that American agriculture has a legal, stable supply of workers, both in the short- and long-term for all types of agriculture.  This requires a legislative solution that deals with the current unauthorized and experienced agricultural workforce and ensures that future needs are met through a program that will admit a sufficient number of willing and able workers in a timely manner.  Past legislative proposals (e.g. AgJOBS, HARVEST Act, BARN Act and other bills) have attempted to reform the H-2A program to ensure a future workforce in agriculture.  However, it is apparent that those proposals are no longer viable to meet agriculture’s needs.

Multiple H-2A regulatory changes and rigid program administration have made use of an already difficult program nearly impossible.  A national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H-2A employers under the current rules showed that administrative delays result in workers arriving on average 22 days after the date of need causing an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms that hire H-2A workers.  Costly recruitment requirements result in less than 5 percent of those referred by the government working the entire contract period.

Agriculture needs a program that functions as efficiently as the current free market movement of migrant farm workers while providing the security of a contractual relationship in areas where there is little migration.  Having lost confidence in the H-2A structure as a framework for future success, AWC members are seeking the new approach outlined above to ensure a legal, reliable, long-term workforce for all sectors of the industry.


About the Agriculture Workforce Coalition

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) brings together organizations representing the diverse needs of agricultural employers across the country.  AWC serves as the unified voice of agriculture in the effort to ensure that America’s farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a stable and secure workforce.