By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. growers, the United Farm Workers union and key senators agreed in principle on immigration reform for farm laborers, a grower coalition said on Friday, assuring the issue will be part of a comprehensive immigration bill to be unveiled next week.
The agreement calls creation of a new guest worker program to replace the current H-2A program and legal status for farm workers who entered the United States illegally.
Officials said they would work over the weekend to flesh out the agreement. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, representing a dozen U.S. farm groups, said the agreement was a step toward assuring a legal workforce on U.S. farms and ranches.
Many of the 1.5 million agricultural workers, perhaps 500,000-900,000 in all, are believed to be undocumented aliens. Farmers, ranchers and nursery operators say the immigrant workers are vital because it is difficult to recruit Americans for the low-paying, often back-breaking labor such as picking fruit or daily care of livestock.
Immigration reform has two major components for agriculture - assuring a workforce in the short-term and a long-term plan for foreign workers filling U.S. jobs.
Farm workers in the country illegally who agree to work in agriculture for an additional five to seven years would become eligible for a "green card" allowing permanent U.S. residence, according to two officials. The workers hold legal status, dubbed a "blue card" by negotiators, during the interim.
The new guest worker program would include a system for setting pay scales and initially would have a high ceiling for the number of visas that could be granted. After five years, the cap could be adjusted by the Agriculture Department. There would be a mechanism for meeting emergency needs for workers.
A wage base would be set for six occupational categories with a mechanism to adjust wages annually. The four major job categories would be crop workers, livestock workers, sorters and graders who work in packing houses, and equipment operators.
"For many farmers across the country, finding a sufficient number of workers to harvest crops or care for animals is the biggest challenge they face in running their businesses," said the grower coalition. "There is a shortage of U.S. workers willing and able to perform farm work."
Growers say the H-2A program is unwieldy to use, takes too long to recruit a sufficient number of workers and sets wages above the rural average. The United Farm Workers warned against setting wages so low they undercut other jobs and are too paltry to support a family.
When the "gang of eight" senators began work in January, they said agricultural workers should be treated differently than laborers in other sectors because of the importance of a safe and reliable food supply.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; Editing by Ros Krasny, Leslie Adler and Tim Dobbyn)