Farmers, organizations renew call for immigration reform as House continues to punt on issue
By Eric Brown | Fence Post Editorial Director
Dave Petrocco a year ago was one of many applauding passage of a Senate immigration reform bill, which would do away with the existing “cumbersome and expensive” guest worker program that had prohibited him and other farmers from bringing needed seasonal workers to the U.S.
Today, Petrocco still is using the disliked H-2A program — out of “desperation,” and also because the House since then hasn’t picked up where the Senate left off, he said.
Petrocco’s Brighton-based business grows vegetables across Weld County and he joined a small group of business leaders, political representatives and others who convened Wednesday at Aims Community College to reiterate how the nation’s immigration system is broken, why they believe reform is critical to the Colorado and U.S. economies, and why Congress needs to address it.
It was part of the larger “National Day of Action for Immigration Reform,” during which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers and a number of other national organizations and their local chapters urged Congress and the administration to enact immigration reform.
Events took place in Washington, D.C., and in more than 60 congressional districts across 25 states, according to a news release from the organization that put together the national event.
The agriculture industry in particular has been in need of immigration reform, Petrocco said Wednesday, along with others in attendance, which included Greeley Chamber of Commerce President Sarah MacQuiddy, who shared recent poll numbers that express the majority of respondents favor quick immigration reform.
While much of the discussion Wednesday in Greeley focused on the local agriculture industry, those at the table also noted there are worker shortages in other industries, which immigration reform could help address.
It’s a message many have been stressing in recent years.
Petrocco said he’s left hundreds of thousands of dollars in vegetables unharvested in his fields in recent years because he didn’t have enough workers to pick them.
A couple years ago, the Petroccos estimated it amounted to $150,000 in unharvested crops.
Petrocco said Wednesday he hasn’t yet reached a final tally for his losses from 2013, but said it was certainly more than that.
“A broken visa and guest worker program has severely affected America’s ability to grow our food,” Petrocco said. “Colorado’s agriculture community is literally dependent on Congress’s ability to get this done.”
Agriculture organizations in a number of states have listed worker shortages as one of the biggest issues negatively impacting their industry.
About a year ago, the White House released a report titled, “Fixing Our Immigration System: Benefits to Agriculture and Rural Communities.” Within the statement, a detailed economic chart outlined the impact on Colorado’s agricultural economy if immigration labor is eliminated. It was estimated Colorado’s short-term agriculture production losses would be $59.9 million to $107.8 million.
Because of that and other reasons, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and others recently blasted the decision by House Speaker John Boehner to not hold a floor vote on immigration this year.
Vegetable growers need an influx of temporary workers to hand-harvest their crops in the fall, along with other duties, but many have said they’ve had difficulty finding employees locally who want to do the temporary job, and the existing federal H-2A program does little to bring in migrant workers and provide any relief.
Petrocco said Wednesday that about six years ago changes in the H-2A program made it too costly — requiring employers to pay for migrant workers’ housing, among other expenses — and too cumbersome.
Many farmers for the most part have stopped using it.
Petrocco was one of them until this year.
He said Wednesday that 2013 was his toughest year yet for finding enough workers.
With the rebound in construction and the local oil-and-gas boom, those growing and better-paying industries — offering full-time jobs, not seasonal — have been taking away more of his workers, making worse an already difficult situation.
Farmers like Petrocco are limited in what they can pay their workers, because they have limited flexibility in what they can charge for their products, they say.
He said Wednesday he’s now using the H-2A program again this year and while it is expensive and cumbersome, he said he’s desperate enough to go back to it.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Dairymen, too, don’t like the H-2A visa program because it only addresses seasonal labor. Milk producers need workers year-round.
In June 2013, the Senate passed its immigration reform bill that would replace the existing H-2A visa program with another guest worker program.
The Senate’s immigration reform bill would replace the H-2A visa program with a portable, at-will, employment-based visa — the W-3 visa — and a contract-based visa — the W-2 visa.
Those visas would be good for three years — the H-2A is only good for 10 months — and could be extended up to six years.
Under the W-2 and W-3 programs, employers would have the option of providing a housing stipend for guest workers instead of being mandated to do so.
However, since the Senate’s passage of its bill, nothing has moved forward, keeping producers from having a new guest worker program. ❖