WASHINGTON — Representatives from the produce industry praised the most recent immigration bill forwarded by Congress late last month, noting in particular that the proposed temporary guest worker program and the provision to legalize most of the 12 million immigrants currently in the country are crucial steps toward beefing up manpower in a short-staffed produce growing industry.
“Those two things, to the food industry, are most critical,” said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Produce, which represents companies throughout the produce industry. “Fruits and vegetables in particular are high-labor crops, since we don't have a lot of mechanization. In order to bring the diversity of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket, we're hugely dependent on an imported labor force.”
Labeled a “compromise bill,” this latest effort holds proposals from both sides of the table, striking a balance somewhere between open arms and hard line. On the one hand, there is the call for legalization of current immigrants living inside the country. On the other hand, to obtain lawful permanent residence, families would have to pay a $5,000 fee and their head of household would have to make a return trip to their home country.
With the guest worker program, capped at 200,000 visas per year, incoming individuals would be allowed a two-year stay before having to leave for one year, preventing them from obtaining permanent status. This program, along with provisions that make it increasingly difficult for individuals to bring in family members, have raised major contentions from immigrants and left-leaning organizations.
Factions on the right, in contrast, argue that the new bill comes too close to amnesty for individuals already living illegally in the country.
“I know there are a lot of emotional issues around immigration reform, but there is unanimous support for the agricultural issues,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association. “We need this.”
Also included in the bill is an employment verification process, which requires that employers use an electronic database to check workers' identity and eligibility to work in the U.S. Unlawful hiring practices would draw stiffer penalties than at present.
This may create more red tape for farmers, according to Stenzel.
“It's going to be a lot tougher,” he said. “But you can't have one without the other. We can't have the legalization of the workforce and the guest worker provisions without these tougher penalties.”
For years, the produce industry has lobbied in favor of the AgJobs bill, a separate piece of legislation that represents the primary immigration-related interests of the agriculture industry. AgJobs advocated the legalization measures and temporary guest worker program that the new bill proposes.
“No bill is perfect, and nitpicking it is not what's useful,” said Means. “It contains the majority of what we want, and we are encouraging our members to write to Congress in support of this bill.”
There is contention within the industry surrounding the rotational structure of the guest worker program, however. Not allowing individuals to plant roots in the U.S. could strip away incentive and could foster a troublesome culture of disenfranchisement.
“We do want to keep employees here who are good actors and who are valuable to our industries,” said Laura Reiff, co-founder of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which represents companies that employee millions of low-skill employees, on a recent episode of PBS' “NewsHour.” “But our fear is that if we don't have the opportunity to allow them to extend their stays here, there may be an underground community that begins to form.”
Beyond simply meeting the bottom line for the nation's growers, sources said, the new bill will help achieve increased availability across the supply chain. In the past, Means said, vendors have received letters from suppliers informing them that they wouldn't be able to make shipments due to labor shortages.
The passage of this proposed bill, Stenzel and Means said, would spell an end to that.
“The supermarket industry needs to understand that they have a vested interest in this issue,” said Stenzel. “Around half of the fruits and vegetables coming into their stores are dependent upon this type of labor force. So they need to understand that even though it's one step removed, it's still critical to their livelihood.”