ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Farmers in New York and New England will find it easier to secure a reliable labor force under sweeping changes to the nation's immigration laws proposed in an 844-page bipartisan bill, Sen. Charles Schumer said Wednesday.
"There's going to be a lot of relief for our dairy farmers, our apple growers and our other specialty crop growers," Schumer said. "I think we're going to see our agriculture industry start growing at a much greater pace because of this bill."
Delegations of upstate New York farmers have traveled to Washington to lobby for an expansion of the guest-worker program for agriculture. Right now, dairy farms are ineligible for the temporary visa program, called H-2A, which is only for seasonal workers. Dairy farms need workers year-round for milking.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has pushed to expand a guest worker program to dairy farmers, who in Vermont rely on an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 illegal workers. He said he welcomed the progress the legislation represents in resolving what he said was longstanding unfairness of immigration policies when it comes to the needs and experiences of Vermont dairy farmers.
"The draft bill unveiled by the bipartisan group provides dairy farmers with access to lawful foreign workers where local workers are not available," Leahy said. "Under the legalization program in the bill, many who are currently working on dairy farms in undocumented status will have the chance to legalize their status and achieve the stability for themselves and their employers that is vital to a successful farming operation."
Overall, Schumer said, the legislation is focused on improving accessibility to foreign workers; providing a path to citizenship for workers and families; streamlining the application process for employers to hire workers; ensuring wages are competitive from state to state; and providing a portable visa waiver program with adequate protections for the workforce.
Schumer said New York has thousands of farm workers who are now in the country illegally. Farms within 100 miles of the Canadian border are subject to immigration raids that may leave them unable to milk their cows or harvest their crops.
Under the proposed changes, those workers would be able to get an agriculture card, also known as a "blue card," which would make them eligible to work in agriculture as legal permanent residents if they have paid all taxes, not been convicted of any serious crime and paid a $400 fine. The provision is important to farmers because they can keep the workers they've already trained, and would help workers get a slightly expedited and less costly path to citizenship.
Another provision would set up a three-year guest-worker program with the option to renew for another three years.
"Our experience up here in Vermont is that generally the workers who come up here and work on dairy farms aren't trying to become American citizens; they're just trying to make some money and go back home and start a business," said Clarke Hinsdale, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau. "And so a three-year guest-worker program with an option to renew once is an excellent, excellent program for us."
Dean Norton, president of New York's Farm Bureau and a dairy farmer in Genesee County, said fruit and vegetable growers as well as dairy farmers have been suffering from a shortage of labor. "We've had crops left on the vine or fruit left on the tree because of a shortage of workers," Norton said. "That adds up to millions of dollars that are lost in local revenue to the rural economies."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has championed the Greek-style yogurt industry in upstate New York, where the number of yogurt plants has more than doubled since 2000. Dairy farmers have warned that a lack of workers has hampered their ability to meet rising demand from the growing yogurt industry.
Cuomo has urged the state's congressional delegation to support creation of a new guest-worker program for the dairy industry.
The bill is sparking intense debate on Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama says the bill is a compromise that doesn't give anyone everything they want — including him. But he urges the Senate to move it forward.
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy said he plans two hearings on Friday and Monday to refine the immigration reform package to take to the Senate floor.
Associated Press writer Lisa Rathke contributed to this report from Montpelier, Vt.