Growers and labor groups are still in disagreement over wages and the number of visas required under a new immigration reform bill. (Photo/Getty Images )

Dispute over farm workers’ wages, number of visas still an issue in immigration talks

Bipartisan immigration reform negotiations continue in the Senate and House, but it does not look like a bill will be introduced next week as many initially expected.

“There is broad and diverse support for the key elements of immigration reform, including for a path to citizenship, and the Senate seems to be heading towards a bill released in mid-April,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of  America’s Voice, a group advocating for immigration reform.

Today in a conference call on immigration reform developments, some activists expressed worry over one unresolved area.

“No agreement has emerged after more than 4 months of negotiations between the UFW (United Farm Workers) and the agribusiness lobby,” said UFW’s Giev Kashkooli.

Growers and unions agree both agree the issue of legal farm workers has got to be resolved.  In fact, it is estimated that more than half of the nation’s farm workers are undocumented.

“The two biggest issues for immigration in agriculture will be the caps, and what the wage rates will be,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, in a recent interview with Bloomberg news.

But it is precisely in these two issues where stark differences arise between the two groups. Growers are pushing to change the current H2A visa system to bring in more farm workers than what labor groups think is necessary. And when it comes to wages, growers say they need more flexibility, whereas the  UFW is accusing growers of trying to lower wages.

“They seek to reduce the wages currently paid to H2A workers and put in place a wage for new agricultural visa holders lower than what current farm workers make,” said UFW’s Kashkooli. “It would be a grievous mistake to allow agribusiness to use the debate over immigration reform to further reduce wages of the poorest workers in the country,” he added.

Four Senators, including Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, have been working with both sides on the issue.  One alternative, say advocates, is that Senators go with their own outline on proposed visas and requirements for farm workers.  Another option is that Senators introduce a bill without an agricultural component.

In the meantime, immigration advocates say they are still optimistic an immigration reform bill will be introduced sooner rather than later.  “Things need to move forward,” said Sharry.

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