WASHINGTON — It’s broken. One can say that about the entire immigration system, but farmers are talking about one piece: people who work seasonal, transient jobs as farm labor.
As the Ohio Farm Bureau began its three-day education and lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., members received briefings Monday from American Farm Bureau staff about hot button federal issues. At the top of that list was a legal solution for farm labor.
“It’s about making sure we have a steady supply of legal workers available to pick our crops,” said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for American Farm Bureau Federation. “Right now, about 70 percent of our current workforce is undocumented.”
The issue always has been complicated and tough to tackle, Boswell said.
“It’s always been a big issue, but the political appetite is a little stronger than it’s been in a long time,” said Boswell, who handles labor and immigration issues for Farm Bureau. “Ag labor is a top priority. We’re working diligently to make sure an agriculture solution is in whatever is in the immigration reform package.”
The current guest worker system is riddled with problems, Boswell said, to the point Farm Bureau wants to replace, not reform it. The group spent a year bringing together its diverse coalitions, producers and growers to propose a unified solution.
Farm Bureau wants a short-term solution, granting experienced agricultural workers who are most likely undocumented the ability to gain work authorization in the United States.
In the long term, the group wants a guest worker program. Farm Bureau does not weigh on whether work authorization or a guest worker program should or should not be a path to citizenship but is just asking for a labor solution.
“Domestic workers are not doing these jobs,” Boswell said. “The work is seasonal, transitory, and it’s hard work. We need a guest worker program that works, that is affordable, efficient and easy to use, with worker protections.”
Farm Bureau has made its opening proposal on the issue and is in talks with bipartisan leaders in Congress taking up the issue as well as the United Farm Workers Union.
As part of the briefing, national staffers also addressed a new Farm Bill. The current bill is an extension of the old one. An attempt at a new Farm Bill failed at the end of 2012. Instead, as part of Fiscal Cliff negotiations, Congress extended the old Farm Bill through the end of September.
Farmers want a new, five-year bill that addresses safety net needs such as crop insurance, said Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of legislative and regulatory policy with Ohio Farm Bill.