By NFU Government Relations Staff

This week begins a flurry of activity on immigration reform, one of the key priorities President Obama laid out in his inaugural address, and one that holds a number of implications for the agricultural industry.

NFU policy supports immigration reform that addresses the needs of U.S. agricultural producers while considering the safety and security of our nation’s borders, infrastructure costs to our rural communities, the inclusion of guest workers in state and federal tax structure, and the human rights of those workers. NFU has recently joined a diverse coalition of agricultural organizations in forming the Agriculture Workforce Coalition to help support our immigration policy priorities and amplify our message.

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators colloquially known as the “Gang of Eight” — Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer, N.Y., Dick Durbin, Ill., Bob Menendez, N.J., and Michael Bennet, Colo., and Republican Sens. John McCain, Ariz., Lindsay Graham, S.C., Marco Rubio, Fla., and Jeff Flake, Ariz. – released a framework for comprehensive immigration reform.

The plan consists of four parts:

1) Creating stronger borders through improved tracking techniques, advanced technology and putting more border-patrol agents on the ground, in combination with requiring currently undocumented immigrants to register with the government to begin the citizenship process. In order to achieve this “probationary” status, undocumented immigrants would need to pass a background check, pay a fine and back taxes and be denied access to all federal public benefits until they achieve full citizenship.

These lawful probationary immigrants will still be required to move to the back of the line to apply for lawful permanent residency behind those immigrants already waiting for a green card at the time the legislation is passed, to ensure that those who sought entry to the United States illegally will not be given preference over those who pursued a legal pathway. However, the senators acknowledge in this point that the agriculture industry faces different challenges than other U.S. industries, stating that “agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume.” Without going into detail, the framework states that farmworkers will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under a new agricultural worker program. It also states that those undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors will be subject to different requirements for seeking a pathway to citizenship;

2) Incenting students who come to the United States to pursue an education to remain in the workforce by awarding a green card to immigrants who have received a Ph.D. or a master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math from an American university;

3) Creating a “tough, fair, effective and mandatory” employment verification system that will both hold employers accountable for knowingly hiring undocumented workers and make it more difficult for unauthorized immigrants to falsify documents to obtain employment; and

4) Providing a means for American businesses to hire lower-skilled immigrant workers in a timely manner when Americans are unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs. The framework specifies the need for the creation of a workable program to meet the needs of the agricultural industry, including dairy, although it does not go into further detail about the program.

This morning, another bipartisan group of senators (Sens. Christopher Coons, D-Del., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.) unveiled the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, legislation that will address the second principle of the framework by nearly doubling the number of visas available to highly skilled foreign workers (known as H-1B visas) and implementing changes to student visas and green cards.

President Obama plans to address the country on immigration reform later today, and further legislative proposals are sure to surface in the weeks to come.

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