From Christmas tree farmers, to dairy owners to fruit and vegetable growers, farmers and ranchers from across the country are personally delivering a united message to Capitol Hill lawmakers this week:

As it is in the fields when crops are ready for harvesting, time is of the essence in passing immigration reform legislation.

This full-court press comes as the Senate takes up the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744). The balanced immigration reform bill includes fair and workable farm labor provisions, according to Farm Bureau.

“It’s been six years since we had the last real conversation on immigration reform, and it’s been more than two decades since Congress passed an immigration reform bill,” said Cody Lyon, American Farm Bureau Federation director of grassroots and policy advocacy. “This is really important for farmers and ranchers. We want to make sure this is done right, which means putting in place a system that really works for all of agriculture.”

What doesn’t work for most growers is the current H-2A guestworker program. Gene Richard, who works with Pennsylvania mushroom farmers, has no shortage of examples of how ineffective the current system, which provides only seasonal workers, is.

A local grower “told me he is 30 people short and for two straight days he didn’t get his mushrooms harvested,” said Richard. “He figures he lost anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 over those two days because his mushrooms went from the mushrooms you buy in a store (in the fresh produce section) to the mushrooms you buy in a can, bringing the price down from about 85 cents a pound to about 35-40 cents a pound.

Cannot wait until tomorrow

“We’ve got to stress to our legislators that we can’t wait until tomorrow or the next day to get our products harvested. They have to be harvested when they’re ready, which is why we need immigration reform that will give us a steady workforce.”

Also from Pennsylvania, Christmas tree farmer Fred Strathmeyer uses the H-2A program, but before he brings a single foreign worker onto his farm, he has to advertise for U.S. workers.

“You advertise on CareerLink, a nationwide program, and in the 20 years we’ve used (H-2A), we may have had 20 people apply for jobs. And in most cases those people either don’t show up or they show up for one day and they don’t last,” said Strathmeyer.

Two of the key components of the Senate immigration reform bill are a Blue Card program for current experienced farm workers and a new agricultural visa program to meet future labor needs, explained Kristi Boswell, AFBF labor specialist.

“The bill’s agriculture provisions are intended to ensure farmers and ranchers can maintain their experienced workers who are in undocumented status and will replace H-2A with a program with more flexibility,” she said.

Under the Blue Card program, experienced agricultural workers can obtain legal immigration status by satisfying criteria such as passing a background check, paying a fine and proving that applicable taxes have been paid. Blue Card workers would be required to continue to work in agriculture before having the opportunity to qualify for a green card.

In addition, the bill would establish a new visa program that allows agricultural employers to hire guestworkers, either under contract or at will. Visa holders would be able to work in the U.S. under a three-year visa and work for any designated agricultural employer. The program would be administered by USDA.

The Senate is pushing for final passage of the legislation before adjourning for the Fourth of July recess.

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