Immigration reform update

Written by Jerry Kozak

Jerry Kozak serves as president and chief executive officer of National Milk Producers Federation, which works for dairy producers and their cooperatives in Washington, D.C., to develop and advance policies beneficial to the dairy industry. DFA is a member of NMPF.

National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has long advocated for immigration reform that responds to the needs of agriculture and dairy farmers in particular.

In seeking to advocate for these important reforms, NMPF cofounded the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC). This coalition of more than 70 organizations represents a broad cross section of production agriculture including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the Western Growers Association.

In early 2013, AWC began an exhaustive series of negotiations with members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) spearheaded by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who recently introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation. We were joined by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). I was among the CEOs who visited daily with UFW, the senators and their staffs to reach consensus on various aspects of any immigration reform proposal. While we certainly had different views from UFW on a wide array of issues, we were both guided by a commitment to ensuring American agriculture will have the workforce it needs to feed the world. After many long hours, we reached an agreement that serves both the interests of agriculture workers and employers.

The agreement focuses on two key components for farmers and workers: maintaining the current workforce and creating access to a future foreign workforce that will be needed to meet the labor needs of American agriculture.

First, this agreement will allow farmers to keep their current workforce, whether they are properly documented or not. Through a “blue card” system, workers who meet certain requirements including commitment to agriculture, past work in agriculture, etc., will be allowed to receive a blue card, enabling them to stay in the country legally, while providing a faster path to obtain permanent residency. In addition to committing to agriculture work for at least five years, should those employees wish to achieve permanent resident status through the receipt of a green card, they must  pay a fine and not have any crime record other than a non-violent misdemeanor. This agreement allows our farmers to keep their current workers without requiring them to return to their country of origin. Such requirements would result in severe production disruptions for farmers.

The second vital portion of this agreement is the creation of a pathway for dairy farmers to access foreign workers needed to meet the labor demands of our industry. For too long, dairy farmers have been unable to access foreign workers due to restrictions in the current H2A visa program. The program remains too expensive and too burdened with regulatory roadblocks to meet the needs of production agriculture. That is why we are not reforming a broken system; we are creating a new program developed by agriculture for agriculture. Along those lines, we know that a consistent complaint farmers have had about the H2A program is the lack of responsiveness the Department of Labor has had to agriculture’s needs. That is why we are shifting control of this program to the Department of Agriculture in this agreement.