WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The need for a documented, steady workforce is the biggest problem facing U.S. farmers, a leading U.S. grower group said days after a mammoth bid for immigration reform collapsed on Capitol Hill.
“The only thing I hear consistently as I go from state to state from producers is that we need a guest worker program, we need to solve this problem,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group.
“Frankly, it’s the biggest short-term issue that exists right now for agriculture,” he said.
Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers looking to update the immigration system failed to win consensus in the U.S. Senate, leaving the fate of up to 12 million improperly documented immigrants uncertain.
The White House, which helped broker the plan, and congressional champions like Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, have vowed to revive the legislation. One provision would provide temporary work permits and paths to citizenship for immigrants who work on U.S. farms.
The Farm Bureau, while urging changes to the plan, had been pushing for immediate action to allow growers to employ workers from a pool of what they believe are up to 900,000 farm workers lacking proper documentation.
The bureau says failure to do so will jeopardize at least $9 billion in farm production every year, largely in the fruit and vegetable sectors that rely on seasonal workers.
“It really is serious. We’re right in there fighting,” Stallman said.
The group was dissatisfied with the Senate plan, saying it failed to ensure a long-term workforce. The legislation would require farm workers who want to become citizens to remain in agriculture three to five years.
“This legislation does not address all of our policy issues sufficiently in our mind, but the (Board of Directors) said in essence that this is the last train leaving the station,” Stallman said. “At least it will provide some relief for our producers.”
The agriculture provisions of the reform package were not the most contentious, but they are certain to muster scrutiny if and when the bill returns for debate, analysts say.
The United Farm Workers was likewise disappointed by the turn in Congress last week.
If President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress fail to act, said the group’s president, Arturo Rodriguez, “then farm workers will continue to be abused, the agricultural industry will be without a stable workforce, and the safety of the nation’s food supply will be in jeopardy.”