Ag industry nonplussed over Obama’s immigration act

Staff Writer

(Dec. 2, 2014) — National and regional Farm Bureaus reacted with a collective shrug this month after President Obama announced a controversial executive action offering temporary legal status to several million illegal immigrants across the nation.
The action, protested by GOP lawmakers, ignored reform and special protections for migratory farmers and the federal programs that manage them — an important labor source for the agricultural industry, which has long requested changes.
“Maryland farmers need an effective, efficient way to hire temporary workers during peak seasons of planting and harvest,” said Chuck Fry, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, in a statement. “The current program — H-2A Visa — is not working for Maryland farmers because the process is too complicated.
“Farmers across the nation report significant loss of harvest each year due to an insufficient number of willing local and foreign workers. We believe there is a need for a new, flexible visa program that brings temporary workers into the country and gives experienced agricultural workers a way to gain legal status.”
The Obama administration, however, reportedly felt uncomfortable singling out migratory farm workers and treating them different than immigrant workers popular in other industries such as hospitality.
Kay Ripley, owner of Baugher’s Orchard in Westminster, Md., said she uses migrant workers through the H-2A program each year to pick fruit and vegetables.
Their Visas begin in early February and run until late November, and they have 10 days to return to their country — in Ripley’s case, that’s Mexico.
The heavy regulation and paperwork makes the program difficult even if it does work for her business, she said.
“You have to jump through all kinds of hoops to get this Visa,” she said.
The approval process requires farmers to navigate and regurgitate large amounts of legalese.
As an example, she said, once you submit a request, if there are any issues with paperwork, the federal Office of Foreign Labor Certification will often mail back your application and give you 24 hours to fix it before rejecting the request.
Much of the approval process is required for homeland security reasons, but the rejections sometimes occur for administrative reasons, she explained.
A federal official once tried to confirm Ripley’s housing situation with an official with the Maryland Department of Labor and Licensing, she said. State workers were on a furlough day.
The official was not in his office. Ripley said her request was denied.
“It’s worked for us for many years, and I’m glad we’re doing it legally,” Ripley said. “I’m grateful for the H2A program, but it is very tedious.”
Most Farm Bureau positions echoes Fry’s, which was not dissimilar from comments by American Farm Bureau President, Bob Stallman.
“We also need to permit some current workers, many of whom have helped sustain our operations for years, to remain working in America,” he said in a statement. “We need legislation that addresses border security and enforcement, improves an outdated agricultural visa program and gives experienced agricultural workers a way to gain legal status.”
Wilmer Stoneman, associate director of governmental relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau, agreed.
“Ultimately, Congress is the one that’s going to have to act to take care of the necessary reforms to provide us with adequate labor and a reasonable immigration policy,” he said.