* New guest worker program is part of the agreement
* Workers who stay in agriculture could get "green card"
* Growers say plan assures labor for U.S. food supply
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, April 12 U.S. growers, the United
Farm Workers union and key senators agreed in principle on
immigration reform for farm laborers, a grower coalition said on
Friday, assuring the issue will be part of a comprehensive
immigration bill to be unveiled next week.
The agreement calls creation of a new guest worker program
to replace the current H-2A program and legal status for farm
workers who entered the United States illegally.
Officials said they would work over the weekend to flesh out
the agreement. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, representing
a dozen U.S. farm groups, said the agreement was a step toward
assuring a legal workforce on U.S. farms and ranches.
Many of the 1.5 million agricultural workers, perhaps
500,000-900,000 in all, are believed to be undocumented aliens.
Farmers, ranchers and nursery operators say the immigrant
workers are vital because it is difficult to recruit Americans
for the low-paying, often back-breaking labor such as picking
fruit or daily care of livestock.
Immigration reform has two major components for agriculture
- assuring a workforce in the short-term and a long-term plan
for foreign workers filling U.S. jobs.
Farm workers in the country illegally who agree to work in
agriculture for an additional five to seven years would become
eligible for a "green card" allowing permanent U.S. residence,
according to two officials. The workers hold legal status,
dubbed a "blue card" by negotiators, during the interim.
The new guest worker program would include a system for
setting pay scales and initially would have a high ceiling for
the number of visas that could be granted. After five years, the
cap could be adjusted by the Agriculture Department. There would
be a mechanism for meeting emergency needs for workers.
A wage base would be set for six occupational categories
with a mechanism to adjust wages annually. The four major job
categories would be crop workers, livestock workers, sorters and
graders who work in packing houses, and equipment operators.
"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," said
the grower coalition. "There is a shortage of U.S. workers
willing and able to perform farm work."
Growers say the H-2A program is unwieldy to use, takes too
long to recruit a sufficient number of workers and sets wages
above the rural average. The United Farm Workers warned against
setting wages so low they undercut other jobs and are too paltry
to support a family.
When the "gang of eight" senators began work in January,
they said agricultural workers should be treated differently
than laborers in other sectors because of the importance of a
safe and reliable food supply.