Immigration: Farmers, workers agree on need for better program


Issue Date: March 7, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, right, discusses immigration issues in his Washington office with Encinitas farmer Pierre Sleiman, center, and Susana Tovar Zepeda, one of Sleiman’s employees. They and others traveled to Capitol Hill last week to present a unified message to Congress.
Photo/Sara Neagu-Reed

Farmers and farm employees spoke in agreement on a topic of vital and mutual interest—immigration policy—during a series of meetings on Capitol Hill.

Farm employers from Monterey and San Diego counties, each accompanied by one employee, traveled to Washington, D.C., last week in the company of California Farm Bureau Federation federal policy specialists, to explain the importance of creating an immigration program that meets the present and future needs of U.S. farmers and people who seek farm jobs.

"I thought it was pretty effective," said Bryan Little, CFBF director of employment policy and chief operating officer of CFBF affiliate Farm Employers Labor Service. "The employees were particularly effective at delivering the message for certain members of Congress. I think they were surprised to hear employees and employers speaking, essentially, the same language but with a slightly different emphasis."

Employers, he said, spoke of the importance of their employees to their businesses and the disruption likely to ensue if employees were forced to leave, whereas employees spoke of their jobs, their families, their communities, and what having to leave all that would mean to them.

"I think the usual expectation is that employees and employers are at odds with each other, but in this case, they weren't," Little said.

CFBF Federal Policy Manager Josh Rolph said he believed the joint employer/employee congressional meetings on immigration were the first in many years.

It's hard to change minds in Washington, Rolph said, but it was good for representatives and their staffs to meet the people who will be affected by whatever action Congress takes.

"Right in front of them, here is the problem," he said. "The farmers have a problem. The workers have a problem. And they're more together than we like to place it in our minds. It's not a Republican-protecting-business or Democrat-protecting-worker issue. Everyone is suffering."

The trip centered on the proposed agricultural guestworker bill first introduced last fall by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., which has since been incorporated into HR 4760, the Securing America's Future Act.

Goodlatte's proposal would replace the H-2A agricultural visa program with H-2C, with the aim of cutting much of the red tape present in the existing program.

CFBF representatives say they consider H-2C unworkable in its current form because the limit of 450,000 visas per year would worsen an already severe employee shortage; guestworkers could not work for more than one employer while in the U.S.; and those already working in the U.S. would have to leave the country before applying to participate, which could prove disruptive.

"While we need a solution to a future workforce in agriculture, it is imperative that legislation adequately address our current domestic workforce," said Wesley Van Camp, a vice president of Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, who took part in the advocacy trip.

"We have made a significant investment in recruiting and retaining employees to work in agriculture," she said. "Our experienced domestic employees make an extraordinary contribution to the productivity and efficiency of our operations. They are irreplaceable."

Little pointed out that the Tanimura & Antle employee who traveled to Washington, Apolonio Garcia, is an agronomy technician who grew up in the Salinas Valley and is working toward an agronomy degree in college.

"These are the things we want to see people do, right?" Little said. "Be part of our community, go to school, get better jobs, improve their lives, support their families—which is exactly what he's doing."

Pierre Sleiman, founder of Go Green Agriculture in Encinitas, also participated in the trip, along with employee Susana Tovar Zepeda.

Sara Neagu-Reed, CFBF federal legislative associate, said the group was invited to return to Washington and continue the conversations, as some members were limited to 15-20 minutes of discussion time.

"That just gives you an idea of how interested they were in the conversations," Neagu-Reed said. "Some of them ran over an hour, and member-level meetings never happen like that. I think it piqued a lot of interest for members on both sides of the aisle."

In turn, the CFBF delegation invited congressional members to come to California and visit the state's farms to have a firsthand look. Neagu-Reed said many representatives expressed interest, and CFBF will follow up with them.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.