INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- For years, undocumented farm workers have had to “live in the shadows” due to a schizophrenic U.S. immigration policy that sometimes ignores the law and sometimes enforces it.

But a worker visa program could change that. 

"The stars seem to be aligning,” Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told those attending the National Dairy Producers Conference on Monday. 

“I’m cautiously optimistic that something (related to immigration reform) will cross the finish line this year and get to the President’s desk,” she said.

Boswell said agriculture groups have provided input to bipartisan groups of U.S. Senators and Representatives on the issue. One group, the so-called “Gang of Eight,” is reportedly close to an agreement and may even have a bill introduced by the end of this week. Read more.  

The timetable is “definitely urgent,” Boswell said. Unless there is passage or significant movement toward passage by the August congressional recess, “we will have missed our chance,” she says. After the congressional recess, Senators and Representatives may be reluctant to deal with an issue as politically charged as immigration with the 2014 election emerging on the horizon.

Boswell said the current H-2A visa program for seasonal and temporary agricultural workers is “broken.” Instead of trying to fix it, she suggested that Congress scrap H-2A in favor of something better.

Both Boswell and another speaker at Monday’s session, Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president of strategic initiatives and trade policy at the National Milk Producers Federation, alluded to the possibility of visas for year-round agricultural workers ― a feature not offered under H-2A. It may be the type of visa that allows agricultural workers to stay in this country for three years, with the possibility of extensions, as long as they remain in agriculture for a certain period of time ― perhaps five years.

However, many questions remain:

  • Will caps be placed on the number of workers who qualify for the agricultural work visas? If the cap is too low, then many employers may find themselves in the same dilemma they face now.  
  • Which government agency will administer the visas? The American Farm Bureau Federation and other groups would like the U.S. Department of Agriculture to handle this rather than the Department of Labor.