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Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. STABENOW. Madam President, as chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, I rise today to speak about the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform. I too, along with the distinguished Senator from New Jersey, wish to indicate that it is very good news that this is not only good in a number of ways to have a legal system that is working for the economy, but we are actually going to see deficit reduction. Saving money as well as providing certainty in the economy for workers and businesses, a legal system that works for people, for families, business workers, is extremely positive.

I wish to congratulate all of my colleagues and friends on both sides of the aisle who have worked so hard: the leader of the Judiciary Committee, the leader of the Immigration Subcommittee, and all of those on both sides of the aisle who have worked so hard to make this happen.

I particularly thank Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Bennet, and others who have worked very hard on a portion of the bill that relates to agriculture.

In agriculture, we need comprehensive immigration reform. It is critically important for farmers from Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, California, and everywhere in between.

As you know, we passed our farm bill with wide bipartisan support a week ago. In the debate, we talked a lot about risk management and making sure that farmers have a safety net when they experience a disaster, whether it be a drought, a late freeze, or other severe weather.

But what about when the weather is good, the Sun shines, there is enough rain but not too much, and it falls at the right times and the crops grow and ripen, and then there aren't enough people to harvest it, which has happened too many times in Michigan? When that happens, crops unpicked, unsorted, and unsold rot in the fields. In California, last year peach growers saw much of their crop rot on the trees because they couldn't find enough workers. One farmer outside Marysville, CA, said he was losing 5 percent of his peaches every day--every day--because he couldn't get enough farm workers and the system didn't work. And this year grapefruit growers are already behind on picking by 2 weeks because of the labor shortage. We need a legal system that works.

In Alabama, in 2011 thousands of farm workers fled the State as a new immigration law was passed and undermined the ability to get quality legal workers. Brian Cash, a tomato grower on Chandler Mountain, said that one day he had 64 workers and the next day he had 11 when the new law made it a crime not to carry valid documents at all times, which forced police to check on anyone they suspected was here illegally. The way this was put together, it was not workable. So we need a system that works, that is realistic, that makes sure everyone, in fact, who is here is documented as legally here, but it has to be done in a way that works for farmers and workers. Because Brian didn't have enough workers to harvest his 125 acres, he watched his tomato crop rot in the field, and that loss cost him $100,000.

In my home State of Michigan last year, we couldn't get enough workers to help harvest the crops up and down the west side of the State. Asparagus grower John Bakker, who runs the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, reports that 97 percent of Michigan asparagus is harvested by hand and almost all of our hand-harvesting labor comes from migrant workers. That means much of our asparagus crop, unfortunately, was left in the field last year.

As you can see here, this was all left in the field. All of this is what has happened.

Alan Overhiser from Casco Township, MI, grows peaches and apples on 225 acres. He typically hires 25 to 30 seasonal workers. Right now he only has two. He said:

I think one thing people don't understand is that people we normally hire are skilled at this work. It's not just something that everyone can do. I think that's probably the myth out there. The reality is that we're in the business of providing safe, high-quality food that people want to buy. It takes a skilled labor force. It's hard work. They just aren't everywhere.

So we need to have a legal system that farmers can count on to have the skilled labor they need.

Dianne Smith, the executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, said that because last year's crop harvest was lost to a weather disaster, many farm workers, of course, moved on to different jobs. In fact, she said that apple growers from Michigan to Washington are desperate to get back the skilled workers they need and that growers are hearing that until immigration is worked out, until there is a legal system they can trust and count on, workers they have worked with for years aren't willing to come back to the United States.

Russ Costanza grows squash, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and eggplants on his Michigan farm. In the 1960s every farm worker his father hired came from nearby Benton Harbor, MI. As of 2010 not a single worker came from that city.

Again, there are the challenges of finding farm workers, those who are skilled and who want to do this kind of work.

Fred Leitz, who also farms near Benton Harbor, says American workers don't want to work in the fields. He has reached out to find workers and says it is a particular kind of work that most American workers are not interested in doing. In 2009 migrant workers held 200 of the 225 jobs at his apple orchard, and he said he would be out of business without their help. He has to have a legal system that works so that he knows he is following the law, so that people know they are following the law, they can count on it, and they can have the skilled workers they need every year.

Today, 77 percent of our country's farm workers are foreign born. These are men and women who work in extremely difficult jobs. They are people who need and want to follow the law. We have to make sure the law works. We need immigration reform to make sure we have an accountable system.

For our workers who put in so much effort all year long only to watch their crops rot in the fields, we need immigration reform. We need a legal system that works. If they do not have workers to pick all of their crops, then farmers are going to plant fewer acres. The effect of a labor shortage can be just as devastating and disastrous on our food supply and our families' grocery bills as a drought or a freeze.

So there is no two ways about it. We need to pass this bill. We need immigration reform. We need a system that is accountable, that is credible, that is legal, and that works. Farmers and farm worker organizations are strongly endorsing this bill because fixing our immigration system is what the bill before us is all about.

I am very pleased people have come together--those representing workers, those representing farmers--to find something that actually is a good balance and works for everyone in this sector of the economy.

This bill first creates a way for current undocumented workers to obtain legal status through the blue card program if they have worked at least 100 work days or 575 hours from January 1, 2010, through December 31, 2012. All the blue card holders receive biometric identification, and employers will be required to provide a record of their employment to the Department of Agriculture as well. To be eligible then for a green card, the workers must have worked for at least 100 days per year for 8 years

prior to enactment or 150 days for 5 years prior to enactment, and they also would have to show that they paid taxes on the income they earned while in blue card status and that they have not been convicted of any felony or violent misdemeanor as well.

Next, the bill also establishes an agriculture worker program to assign work visas for immigrant workers who don't wish to live in the United States but want to be able to come to the United States and work legally. Workers must register with USDA and pay a registration fee, and the USDA will create an electronic employment monitoring system similar to our current student and exchange visitor information system to track temporary workers.

This bill ensures a review of the visa cap after 5 years so we can see how the program is working for farmers and for farm workers. It also gives the Secretary of Agriculture the power to increase the number of visas in an emergency, as in a situation where we don't have enough workers and the crops are actually rotting in the fields.

In addition, any workers who are unemployed for more than 60 days or breach a contract with an employer will have to leave the United States.

Furthermore, the bill provides much needed certainty for farmers and for workers when it comes to wages. Under the bill farmers will know how much to plan to spend on help, and workers will know how much to plan on earning for their work.

Finally, farm employers must hire eligible and qualified American workers before filling any shortages of workers through the visa program. So, as always--and certainly a high priority for me--we want to make sure American workers have the first opportunity for these jobs. It is only in a situation where there are not Americans applying and wishing to have this employment that we would then turn to those who are legally here and who are foreign born.

We are the top agricultural export country in the world--the top. That is one of the bright spots for us. As I have said so many times, 16 million people work in this industry. We can't continue to be the top export country if we leave crops in the fields or on the trees because we don't have a legal system that works and we don't have legal employees who are here, workers who are here legally and who can do the work. So we need to pass this bill.

There are many reasons to pass this bill. One is to make sure we are actually picking from the fruit trees and not letting things fall and rot on the ground--the precious food we are growing across the country. We need to pass this bill because our food supply and the world's food supply depend on being able to get the crops out of the fields.

We have done a great job working together to produce a 5-year farm bill that addresses everything from research and support for farmers when they have disasters to conservation practices, trade, local food systems, rural development, and on and on. The one piece we can do now that will really give American agriculture a positive one-two punch is to pass this bill.

This bill is a balance. It has been worked out among all those involved in the agricultural economy, both from a business standpoint and a worker standpoint. Everyone is very clear: The system is broken. It doesn't work. It doesn't work for anybody right now. So we need a system that works, that is accountable, that has the right kind of balance, and that, of course, puts American workers first but allows our farmers to have the legal workers they need as well in that process.

This bill makes sense, and I urge my colleagues to support it.

I yield the floor.


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