BY JOE OLENICK
Medina Journal-Register — New York farmers, especially those in the dairy industry, will have a reliable labor force under sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration laws proposed in an 844-page bipartisan bill.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer said Wednesday the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 would allow for the creation of a new visa program that will allow farmers to hire year-round workers and end reliance on illegal immigrant laborers.
The legislation was filed at 2 a.m. Wednesday by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” a group that includes Schumer, as well as U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin, Robert Menendez, Michael Bennet, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake.
The agricultural industry is on the rise in New York, especially with dairy and apples, Schumer said. New York has become a national leader in apples and Greek yogurt, but dairy farms have a problem with the current temporary visa program. The program is only for seasonal workers, a problem because dairy farms need workers year-round.
Dairy farmers are generally not able to hire foreign workers through the existing guest-worker program for agriculture because milk production is year-round. The new guest worker W-2 and W-3 visa program, will ensure that our dairy farmers have a reliable, year-round supply of labor, Schumer said.
The bill will also ease the labor shortage for northeastern apple and vegetable growers, making sure fruit and vegetables don’t go unpicked because there isn’t anyone to pick them. Schumer said a year-round supply of labor for farmers, ensure that New York apple and fruit growers can be more competitive on a national scale.
“The number one compliant I hear from farms is they can’t get enough workers,” he said.
The New York Farm Bureau supported the legislation, said New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton. If the bill becomes law, farms won’t have to hire illegal immigrants, a practice farmers would rather not do, Norton said.
“There won’t be any crops left on the vine or on trees because there’s no one to pick them,” he said.
The proposed bill allows farm employees who are already skilled and working on New York farms to continue working and eventually obtain legal status. There will be a specific “agriculture” section under the bill’s new Registered Provisional Immigrant program.
If these workers have made a substantial prior commitment to agricultural work in the United States, they would be eligible for an Agricultural Card, also known as a Blue Card. This card provides legal permanent resident status in an expedited manner, only if those agricultural workers commit to fulfill future Agricultural Card work requirements in U.S. agriculture, show that they have paid all taxes, have not been convicted of any serious crime and pay a $400 fine.
Agricultural Card holders would also have access to a slightly expedited and less costly path to citizenship and will be allowed to continue work on New York farms in the meantime. There are about 36,000 farms in New York.
Schumer said the legislation ensures that there is a nationwide wage rate for agricultural workers that is fair for farmers and workers so states in the Northeast to remain competitive.
Schumer said he expects the bill to make it to the Senate floor for a vote in May. It’s expected the House of Representatives would see the legislation sometime in the summer, so if Congress approves it, the bill can reach President Barack Obama’s desk by the fall.Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.