In January, a group of 11 farmer and farm worker organizations announced a new coalition, the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, to lobby for immigration reform in Congress. Progressive Dairyman spoke with representatives for two members of the coalition – via phone with Ken Barbic, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist for Western Growers, and via news conference with Jerry Kozak, CEO of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF); and Mike McCloskey, chairman of NMPF’s immigration task force. Their comments have been combined together in this Q&A format.
Who created this coalition? Who’s running the show, if you will?
BARBIC: The formation of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition really started 18 months ago. The groups in the coalition started meeting to try to come up with a unified ag proposal that would have been able to go into a mandatory E-Verify bill.
The mandatory E-Verify bill proposed in the last session of Congress obviously failed, but agriculture still needed a solution to our immigration issues. So this group, at a staff level, started meeting back up again early in 2012.
The principles and final proposal were put together last year, and the founding member associations’ CEOs signed off back in November. There have been a number of players who have had a very, very active role in both the formation of the coalition, and I would say in its leadership, including Western Growers, Farm Bureau and Western United Dairyman .
But the thing that’s really historic about the group is the fact that it is all of agriculture coming together behind a single proposal, which has not always been the case.
How is this coalition and its proposals different from previous attempts at ag labor reform?
BARBIC: I think, again, the main difference is you have a broader coalition of groups supporting this. I wasn’t around Washington 10 years ago, but past pieces of legislation sought to reform the H-2A program.
There has been an almost universal frustration with the H-2A program, and years ago there was some thought that maybe H-2A could be reformed. I think, by and large, and across agriculture, you have a pretty universal opinion that H-2A is broken beyond repair, so it’s time to put our efforts behind a new program.
What is the game plan to advocate for reforms that have so far been elusive?
BARBIC: Our proposal is essentially to do something with the existing, experienced workers currently working with ag operations. They would be able to receive an ag card and status to stay in the country and continue working in agriculture.
Our second proposal is to develop a new program for future workers coming into the U.S. As many are aware, the H-2A program has been broken for years. It doesn’t work really well in some states, such as California. It never worked for dairy.
The new program would essentially streamline and make more efficient, and more market-oriented, the way ag workers would come into the country. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are working with our group.
KOZAK: The “Gang of Eight” on the Senate side of Capitol Hill is looking to move on overall reform. The White House has signaled their desire to see overall immigration reform, which we support completely. I think our task is to try to fold the agricultural piece of immigration reform into the overall plan as it moves forward.
Now, having said that, as agricultural employers we also have to be cognizant that if overall immigration reform is impossible in this Congress, we’re going to do everything we think we can to have a separate piece of legislation, but that is not the direction I think we’re headed toward.
Your proposal is built for not just seasonal labor, but also some of those long-term, permanent labor needs in agriculture, correct?
BARBIC: Exactly. It’s meant to address a small vegetable farmer in the Southeast who needs workers for three months. It’s also meant to meet your needs if you’re a lettuce operator or a strawberry farmer in California, and you may need temporary help for a longer duration. It’s also meant to meet your needs if you’re a dairyman and you need someone for 12 months.
What do you think will be different about the attempts and, hopefully, outcome of the coalition this time than before?
KOZAK: There’s a real opportunity for a breakthrough on Capitol Hill this year on one of the most vexing public issues that has been affecting dairy farmers for many, many years. And that is the absolute need to reform our immigration laws.
Several things have happened in recent months to make this issue much more achievable than in the past. First is the impact of November’s election on Republicans in terms of their support, or lack thereof, among Hispanics.
The second is the interest in a “legacy achievement” on the part of President Obama. And finally is the continued pressure from the business community, which includes agriculture, that our current “don’t ask, don’t tell” employment system is broken. All of these things are aligning to create a more favorable political climate.
MCCLOSKEY: News on the immigration front has been discouraging for many, many years. NMPF has been involved for the past nine years, seeking a resolution that helps dairy farmers.
Attempts in 2004 and 2007 to reform our immigration systems have failed and compounded the challenge of reform, and enforcement actions aimed at employers and employees have been beefed up throughout the country. This has made it very, very difficult for many producers.
Today, we have probably the best opportunity we’ve had in the last four years to finally tackle immigration reform, once and for all. The proposal we helped create will help all producers, be they seasonal fruit and vegetable growers or year-round operators such as those in the dairy industry.
Our proposal addresses both workers who are here now, and this is very important, and those that will come to our country legally in the future. It also provides options for farmers who hire individuals on contract or an at-will basis.
Finally, this proposal will ensure that our employees no longer remain in the shadows, which has been a shame, and ensure that we as employers can be confident that our workers are both legal and safe.
Why form this group now?
BARBIC: Why now? Because immigration reform is moving forward. You see the debate on comprehensive immigration reform starting up. We’ve been told if you want to be on this train you need to have your house in order and ready to get on the train, so we want to be prepared and not behind the eight-ball when it starts.
What are the similarities and differences between the founding members of the coalition?
BARBIC: All the groups in the coalition, or those supporting it, have grassroots networks. We all have constituencies. The purpose of the coalition is not to hire staff and everything else required to go out and do this work.
It’s expected that the members of the coalition are going to be working in concert together to advocate and lobby on behalf of this proposal. We’re going to utilize the networks and relationships that each of our groups and associations have already.
So I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of differences. The coalition is leveraging everyone’s resources for a common purpose. This coalition, as any other, is formed for the purpose of accomplishing a task. Individual groups have other goals and objectives that will outlive this coalition. PD
Click here to learn more about Agriculture Workforce Coalition’s immigration reform proposals.
Founding association members of AWC:
American Nursery & Landscape Association
Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association