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Dairy farmers say immigration bill’s agricultural programs could solve labor crisis

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Much of the hard labor at north country dairy farms — the milking of cows, tilling of fields — is done by foreign workers. But the often unclear legal status of these workers is an issue that most farmers often keep mum about, for fear of having their farms unexpectedly shut down.

Farmers here are optimistic, however, that a retooled program for agricultural workers in the immigration bill passed by the Senate last month could offer a solution to that problem. The new “W-visa” agricultural worker program — which would replace the H-2A program — would allow foreign workers to be employed on farms for three-year renewable stints. That’s a significant advantage over the one year allowed by the H-2A program, which is used by fruit and vegetable farmers to hire seasonal workers.

The W-visa program would permit foreign workers to cross the border and work for agriculture employers designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to the bill. While here, these workers would be allowed to leave one job for another to work for multiple designated farms; they’d be required to leave the country only if they are unemployed for 60 or more days.

Immigrants would have to apply for the W-visa program at U.S. embassies and consulates in their home countries. And employers seeking to hire immigrants would have to prove they have tried to recruit locally to show there are no American workers available before visa workers are hired. Employers also would be required to pay visa workers the higher of the minimum wage or specified wage rates, and offer on-site housing or a housing allowance.

Undocumented agricultural workers now here on farms would be eligible for an immigrant status called a blue card, according to the bill. To qualify, workers must prove they’ve performed at least 575 hours or 100 work days of agricultural employment over a two-year period ending Dec. 31, 2012, along with paying a penalty and passing a background check. That blue-card status may remain active for up to eight years, but workers will not be eligible for federal public benefits. Blue-card workers may apply for permanent resident status five years after enactment of the bill. If they keep their permanent status for five more years, workers then may apply for U.S. citizenship.

Both the W-visa and blue-card agricultural programs would take effect in 2015. The two programs also will be woven into the bill to be considered by the House, where the Republican majority will make passage more challenging, Rep. William L. Owens said Monday during a phone interview.

The agriculture programs “have the best chance of anything we are currently discussing to solve the labor problem” experienced by dairy farmers in the north country, said Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

Dairy farmers said they like two things about the bill: first, it provides them with much-needed, long-term labor not available locally; second, providing workers with legal papers could eliminate the risk farmers face of being shut down from inadvertently hiring undocumented workers.

For medium to large dairy farms, finding reliable local workers to fill labor positions is challenging, Ellisburg dairy farmer Douglas W. Shelmidine said. He owns a 1,500-acre, 720-cow farm manned by 17 employees.

The farm employs immigrant workers, and Mr. Shelmidine said all are here legally.

“While we’ve tried to stay with local workers, we’ve had a great deal of difficulty keeping shifts filled,” he said.

Mr. Shelmidine said that although he supports the W-visa program in the federal immigration bill, he’s against the provision requiring agriculture employers to prove they have sought to hire local workers first. Farms would have to prove they’ve posted open positions at a job-bank website, for example.

“I have real reservations about it, because it’s another hoop we’ve got to jump through,” Mr. Shelmidine said.

But hiring immigrant workers under longer-term contracts is attractive to Mr. Shelmidine because high employee turnover can mean deep cuts to the operation’s bottom line.

“We spend weeks of training before people can milk cows and do their jobs without direct supervision,” he said. “Any time we have to transition workers, there’s a huge profit loss to us, so long-term employment is absolutely critical. Three years (in the bill) is good, but I believe it should be longer.”

Even more important, Mr. Shelmidine said, would be the assurance that foreign workers are here legally.

“There will be widespread interest to participate in any kind of program where we can obtain a legal workforce without Big Brother coming in shutting you down,” he said.

Determining whether immigrant workers are here legally has been an ongoing challenge for farmers in the north country, said Michael B. Kiechle, president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau. It remains to be seen, he said, whether immigration reform can provide a foolproof solution to the problem.

“These workers present farmers with documents that look legal,” said Mr. Kiechle, who owns a small dairy farm in Philadelphia. “And it’s hard for an employer to look at a document and understand if it’s legal or forged. And if they don’t hire workers, they can call it discrimination because of race.”

A bipartisan group in the House composed of four Democrats and three Republicans is expected to introduce a bill soon that could be brought to the floor for a vote, Mr. Owens said. But drawing enough Republican votes to reach the 218 needed for passage could be a challenge.

He said the bill likely will be passed by one of the following scenarios: House Speaker John A. Boehner “will either have to bring the bill forward and count on Democratic support for passage, or what you may see is a filing of a discharge petition. If a bill gets 218 signatures, it has to be brought to the floor for a vote. That doesn’t work very often, but this is a serious enough issue that it could happen.”

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