Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- California agriculture would suffer unless Congress overhauls the immigration system, the Obama administration said Monday in a renewed push to lobby for a Senate-approved measure that has the support of the Golden State's farm lobby.
Seventy-three percent of California's agricultural workers are non-citizens -- the highest in any state -- and a majority of them are undocumented workers, according to a White House report issued Monday. Washington state, where 60 percent of farm workers are non-citizens, and Florida, with 59 percent, round out the top three, according to the report, released the week before Congress is to leave for the summer.
During a conference call with reporters, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress to pass an immigration overhaul bill that would grant legal status to undocumented farm laborers. Without them, California's $34 billion agriculture industry would suffer, he said. Quoting from the report, Vilsack said California farmers could lose $1.7 billion to $3.1 billion if migrant workers are barred from working for them.
"You start looking at those numbers state-by-state (and) you recognize the economic impact on agriculture, and it then becomes common sense that it's time to fix this broken system," Vilsack said.
The Senate bill "will provide employment security for workers and their families. It would improve working conditions for all workers, and it would provide a fair marketplace for producers who are currently playing by the rules," Vilsack said. "It would mean more revenue for the government because we would take people out of the shadow economy and put them in the regular economy."
The administration's efforts to sell the Senate bill to the House have gone nowhere.
The House refused to consider the Senate plan, which passed by a bipartisan 68-32 margin. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House will consider narrower measures and work with the Senate later to craft a compromise bill.
Conservative Republicans object to the heart of the Senate's plan -- putting 11 million undocumented residents, including farm workers, on the path toward citizenship. Some conservatives like Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, also doubt that the farm worker provisions in the Senate bill would work as advertised.
Many California agricultural groups like the California Farm Bureau and the Nisei Farmers League helped write those provisions, which they say will ease chronic labor shortages that plague fruit and vegetable growers in the Coachella, Central and Salinas valleys.
The Senate bill would scrap the unpopular H2A migrant worker visa and create a new "W" visa under which at least 336,000 guest workers could come to the U.S. to work.
Thousands of undocumented workers could also apply for "blue" cards to obtain legal status quickly, and later seek "green" cards to become permanent residents and eventually become naturalized citizens.
The Senate bill also proposes a special employer-verification system for agricultural employers separate from the "E-Verify" system other industries would have to use.
Gannett Washington Bureau