Agricultural Workers and Farmers Unite to Push Congress on Immigration Reform

The sight of the head of the United Farm Workers and farmer representatives testifying side by side before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday to promote the farmworker section of the immigration-reform bill was an extraordinary moment in American agriculture.

But even with this unity, agricultural leaders will have to work very hard with other immigration reformers to persuade members of Congress, particularly those from some rural areas, to vote for the overall bill.

The panel’s unity was something to behold. United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, the lead witness, began his testimony by noting, “Tomorrow will mark the 20th year since our founder, Cesar Chavez, passed away—so we think it is very appropriate that we are here on this historic day to talk about the future of American agriculture.”

Rodriguez could have recalled the bloody battles that Chavez went through to establish the union, but instead he thanked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for her leadership in working with Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to put together a farmworker proposal “that will strengthen our nation’s agricultural industry.”

Rodriguez did note that men, women, and children who work in the fields and with livestock do some of the “hardest, toughest, dirtiest jobs” in America at some of the lowest wages and with the fewest job protections. But the senators’ proposal, he said, “would give professional farmworkers presently in the United States” temporary legal status and the opportunity to earn permanent legal residence by continuing to work in agriculture, while also creating visa programs that will allow farmworkers to enter the country legally and avoid the “corrupt recruitment practices” that many farm laborers experience.

Rodriguez was followed by Republican Chuck Conner, a former deputy and acting Agriculture secretary who is president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and who represented the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, composed of some 70 agriculture groups ranging from fruit and vegetable groups to the dairy industry.

Conner said it was “a pleasure” to testify next to Rodriguez. “For many years, agriculture and the farming sector have spoken with many voices on immigration,” he said. “Today, we speak with one voice. And we are loudly saying that without people to work on America’s farms and ranches, pick the crops, or milk the cows, all other issues in agriculture become irrelevant.”

The proposal, Conner noted, provides for three-year visas that can be used by dairy farmers who need year-round workers, as well as a wage agreement flexible enough to address the needs of farmers and ranchers “whether they are growing almonds in California, peaches in South Carolina, or apples in Vermont, or whether they raise beef cattle in Texas or dairy cows in Iowa.”

Although farmers have complained for decades that the difficulty of using the H-2A visa system to bring in laborers legally has forced them to hire undocumented workers, H-2A contractors have felt threatened by new immigration proposals. But Alyson Eastman, the owner of a Vermont firm that assists H-2A companies, testified that the new visa system would be an improvement over the H-2A system that the bill eliminates. The provision to shift management of the visa program from the Labor Department to the Agriculture Department would also help, she said.

The negotiations, which have taken months, appear to have led the workers, farmers, and contractors toward newfound respect for each other. Farmworker leaders, recalling the exploitive “bracero” program of years ago, have often questioned the need for a guest-worker program, but Rodriguez said that farmers need a source of labor as current farmworkers move on to other jobs. Conner noted that, due to the difficulty of finding laborers, some growers in California and other states have shifted production to other countries while fruit and vegetable imports have increased. Eastman said that when workers go home to Mexico each year, they contribute to the U.S. economy by shipping “barrels full with goods from places like Wal-Mart and Costco—purchases such as motorcycles, washing machines, lawn mowers, weed whackers, and even chainsaws.”

Feinstein declared at the hearing that there was such unanimity that Congress should pass the farmworker section of the bill “unamended.”

But even before the hearing turned to nonagricultural sections of the bill, the senators and agriculture witnesses got a taste of the opposition to come. Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he is worried that the bill makes legalization too easy and that when farmworkers move on to other jobs, a flood of undocumented workers will result. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he feels that farmers are saying they are “entitled” to a certain number of workers and that when workers are not eligible for another visa, “I don’t think we’ll be hunting down those people.” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the border-security provisions “fall short.”

Rodriguez noted that he is a Texas native and hopes that both Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, will support the bill. But Cruz, who is not on the Judiciary Committee, has already come out in opposition.

Iowa, Alabama, and Texas all need farmworkers. The agriculture leaders may think that they have worked hard to reach agreement among themselves, but they could find that persuading the senators from those states to vote for the bill may be an even bigger challenge.

Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at