NASHVILLE The biggest U.S. farm group is pressing for a new law to reform immigration rules to assure farm workers can enter the country and to allow illegal workers to gain legal U.S. residence after several years.
"This is a huge issue with us," said Bob Stallman, president of the 6 million-member American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) on Sunday. "I think if we start building momentum, this is something we can do."
Immigration reform became a front-burner issue following the general election in November, when Hispanic support figured in President Barack Obama's re-election. Staff-level advocates for farm worker reform met recently at the White House to discuss proposals, said Stallman.
U.S. agriculture employs 1.5 million hired workers annually in temporary or fulltime jobs. Farmers and ranchers say it is a perennial struggle to find enough workers.
A dozen agricultural and landscape industry groups, including AFBF, are members of an Agriculture Workforce Coalition that was launched on Friday.
They propose a two-part package. One part, a so-called Agricultural Worker Program would allow 11-month visas for "at will" workers allowed to move from employer to employer and 12-month visas for workers with a contract with a producer. In each case, the visa can be renewed.
For undocumented workers, the package would allow them to work "for a number of days annually in agriculture for several years" after which, "the workers will obtain permanent legal status and the right to work in whatever industries they choose," according to the coalition.
The scope of "permanent legal status" probably will be decided during bill-drafting in Congress, said an AFBF official. She said it might result in a so-called green card that allows permanent residence in the United States for foreigners and replied "no, not necessarily" to a question if it would result in citizenship.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; Editing by Diane Craft)