Debating immigration reform

WASHINGTON -- Employees of the Farm Service Agency county offices are "excited" about the immigration reform proposal that would make them the point of contact for farmers in reporting their labor needs and keeping track of immigrant farm workers...

WASHINGTON -- Employees of the Farm Service Agency county offices are "excited" about the immigration reform proposal that would make them the point of contact for farmers in reporting their labor needs and keeping track of immigrant farm workers, said John Lohr, the national president of the National Association of Farm Service Agency County Office Employees (NASCOE).

"We are excited," Lohr said. "We have taken a look at the Senate proposal and we are interested in a role for FSA county offices. We have the largest federal footprint in rural America. We look forward to working with Congress for the best possible agricultural labor program."

The immigration reform proposal gives the responsibility for determining the cap on immigrant visas to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who played a key role in negotiating the farm worker section of the proposal, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing April 24 that Vilsack "will make available his Farm Service Agency" for implementation of the farm labor program. Feinstein also said she hopes the farm worker section of the immigration bill passes Congress unamended.

Western Growers CEO Tom Nassif and other farm leaders insisted that USDA should be in charge of determining the size of the labor pool rather than the Labor Department, which will retain jurisdiction over worker fairness and safety enforcement.

Chuck Conner, a former agriculture deputy and acting secretary who is now the president of the National Council of Farmer Co-operatives, said farmers would be comfortable reporting the data to the county offices because they have long relationships with them.


There are FSA offices in almost every agricultural county in the country, although in recent years there has been pressure to combine the smallest county offices. The county office structure was set up in the 1930s when Congress and the Franklin Roosevelt administration established the modern farm program. The county offices are technically run by committees of local farmers and their primary job is to certify that people who claim to be farmers are farmers and are eligible for federal farm programs and subsidies.

The FSA provides the money to pay the employees, who have most of the benefits of federal workers.

Lohr noted that farmers file their crop reports and applications for subsidies in the county offices. Filing the labor rights would follow "right along the lines of what we have been doing the total of our existence," he said.

But he also maintained that taking on immigration implementation "will require additional resources."


Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has tied a path for legalization and citizenship for farm workers to that for the DREAMers, the young people who have been brought to the U.S. illegally as children and are now in college.

In her written testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 23, Napolitano said the Obama administration thinks "childhood arrivals -- known as DREAMers -- should be eligible for earned citizenship. Additionally, immigrant farm workers, many of whom are currently undocumented, must be provided a similar opportunity to get on the right side of the law."

Republicans have blocked the DREAM Act that would give legal status to the young immigrants, but the White House, using its administrative powers, has decided not to pursue the deportation of these students.


Napolitano noted, however, that the administration thinks immigrants who are in the country without documents must register, submit biometric data, pass criminal background and national security checks and pay fees to be eligible for provisional legal status.

In the testimony, Napolitano noted that President Barack Obama has called the bill a compromise, and that there are some provisions with which the administration does not agree.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the committee would mark up the bill in May. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has also said he hopes to bring the bill to the Senate floor in June.

Leahy and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., stressed the importance of the farm worker provisions in the immigration reform proposal.

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