Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, and published on the Ag Alert newspaper site.
For the past 12 years, attempts at developing meaningful immigration reforms have been more about rumor and "potential" than actual substance or reality. I don't want to sound naive or once again falling victim to false hope, but the situation appears to be different this time.
Since the November elections, immigration reform has taken center stage once the "fiscal cliff" was dealt with. The president has made speeches about it and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has proposed a broad legislative framework to deal with the immigration issue.
During the past year, a coalition of agricultural organizations from across our nation has worked together in an unprecedented manner to develop parameters for an agricultural immigration reform package. The American Farm Bureau Federation, along with state Farm Bureaus including the California Farm Bureau, has worked with other agricultural groups to craft a program to meet the diverse needs of farmers across the nation. Be it a sweet potato farmer in the South who is challenged to attract workers to isolated areas, dairy farmers in the Northeast, apple growers in the Northwest or California farmers growing a diversity of seasonal or perishable crops, a program must be developed that can meet these varied needs.
Collectively, these agricultural groups formed the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which has developed a set of universally supported principles that would define an agricultural worker program. The coalition is working with Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to craft the agricultural components of an immigration reform package.
While the political winds finally seem to be blowing in the same direction, with the administration and congressional leaders from both parties realizing that doing nothing about immigration is not a good option for anyone, there will undoubtedly be resistance to any proposal.
Some have contended if farmers only paid higher wages, they wouldn't have a shortage of prospective workers. However, a recent report by the Employment Development Department showed average hourly wages for agricultural jobs in California were comfortably above minimum wage, on average 50 percent higher. In addition, most agricultural employees have the opportunity to earn premium pay for overtime hours. One of the challenges with securing domestic labor for agricultural work is that it is often seasonal employment and less predictable than other jobs, even jobs that don't pay as well. Most domestic job seekers want longer-term employment with predictable hours and workplace location. Agricultural work is typically performed outside, susceptible to varying work schedules and will often move from farm to farm and employer to employer, as the crop or weather dictates.