New York Times
By Michael Shear
July 29, 2013
An immigration overhaul of the kind supported by President Obama would help ensure a stable, predictable work force for the nation’s agricultural industries, a new report released by the White House argues.
The 20-page document is the latest effort by Mr. Obama’s administration to try to document what it says are the benefits of providing a pathway to citizenship for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants, some of whom toil in the fields across the country. Critics, however, argued that the industry’s problems could be addressed with smaller tweaks to existing law.
“Currently, the agriculture industry is hampered by a broken immigration system that fails to support a predictable and stable work force,” the report states. “It is time to act to fix the broken immigration system in a way that requires responsibility from everyone — both from workers here illegally and from those who hire them — and guarantees that everyone is playing by the same rules.”
Advocates for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws say the current system leaves the agriculture industry vulnerable to labor shortages when the government cracks down on businesses that employ illegal workers. Under new laws like the one passed by the Senate last month, the report argues, agricultural companies would be assured of a work force that is not threatened with deportation.
“Among its most important provisions, the bipartisan bill would provide an earned path to citizenship for unauthorized farmworkers who are vital to our nation’s agriculture industry, and a new temporary worker program negotiated by major grower associations and farmworker groups,” the report says.
One of those provisions would let undocumented agriculture workers gain legal status almost immediately after the law is passed. Assuming they meet other requirements and pass background checks, they would then be able to apply for a green card — giving them permanent status to work in the United States — after only five years, half the time it would take for other immigrants who had been in the country illegally.
The Senate legislation also proposes a new guest-worker program that would let hundreds of thousands of workers into the country legally to work in the agriculture industry temporarily. It would replace an existing program that many employers say is too cumbersome to be effective.
The White House report cites studies showing that without such changes in immigration law, a labor shortage for agricultural work could significantly affect the output and exports of the nation’s farms.
“In this scenario, after 15 years, three such sectors (fruit, vegetables, and nursery products) would experience a 2.0- to 5.4-percent decrease in output and a 2.5- to 9.3-percent decrease in exports, compared with the base forecast,” the report says.
Critics of the immigration overhaul question the need for sweeping changes to the nation’s laws. They argue that there have not been the kind of agriculture worker shortages that farmers claim. And they say that of all the workers in the United States illegally, only a small percentage work on farms.
“The question of agriculture is almost entirely irrelevant because it’s a tiny fraction,” said Steven Camarota, the director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes the Senate legislation.
Mr. Camarota said that relatively small changes to the existing guest worker programs for agriculture workers would be enough to satisfy most farmers. He dismissed the White House study as nothing more than a public relations gimmick.
“Agriculture is not at the center of this debate,” he said. “It’s only at the center of a public-relations campaign.”
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