Despite the fact that immigration reform is in the wheelhouse of the House Judiciary Committee, the topic was front-and-center during a Wednesday (April 24) hearing of the Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture. All panelists were largely complimentary of the recently proposed Senate legislation immigration.

For more, see here and here.

The hearing took place just as Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, House Agriculture Committee chairman, again vowed a mid-May start to the writing of a new farm bill. The committee will work off the House farm bill version (full coverage here) that was cobbled together last year.

Back at the subcommittee hearing, panelists were asked what changes they’d recommend for immigration policy.

“A very strong ag guest-worker program is critical to any type of comprehensive immigration reform bill,” said Sarah Frey-Talley, president and CEO of Frey Farms in Keenes, Illinois. “In the current bill that the Senate has, we support that framework and think that’s a workable solution for agriculture.”

Read Frey-Talley’s prepared statement here.

The Senate group that put the labor bill together presented good proposals, said William Brim, president and owner of Lewis &Taylor Farms, Inc. in Tifton, Georgia. Still, “some tweaking needs to be done. But moving the program to a three-year visa was a good thing.

“In my district, I still get calls all the time from farmers who think (the lawmakers) haven’t been able to get the wage rate right. That’s another problem.”

Read Brim’s prepared statement here.

Brim also believes the 112,000 cap on visas is too low for the first year. The concerns are aggravated for “the third year, when Blue Card holders leave agriculture and we have to go back to the H-2A or some other contractual program.

“The other thing is mediation is a non-binding agreement with legal services. If we’re going to have mediation then it should be binding. Why should we have to mediate it, they agree to a mediator, and they still take us to court? They take us to court and we have to spend another $500,000 on something we haven’t done wrong. That’s horrendous, I think.”

The timing of the Boston Marathon bombings has also allowed some immigration reform naysayers to latch onto terrorism as a reason not to proceed with system changes.

California Rep. Juan Vargas, in contact with “a lot” of farming constituents, said he asked them “if there was one thing you could fix what would it be? They say ‘immigration.’ They say insurance policies don’t work for them but immigration is the biggest issue...

“Have you ever seen a terrorist running around your farms? Anyone become radicalized out there with the tomatoes or jack-o-lanterns? Anything like that? There’s a notion of radicalized immigrants – have you seen any of those guys out there on your farms?”

“No, sir, I have not,” answered Brim. “We do have some problems on our farms but it isn’t from terrorism, I assure you.

“We’ve been doing the H-2A (visa) program since 1998. We have the same (workers) coming back year after year. … We’re a 12-month business. We can’t do it 10 months and stop. And all our employees keep coming back so they’re well-trained – we don’t have to recruit and re-train each year. That’s very different.

“But we think the H-2A program is cumbersome and litigious. However, we like having (workers) coming back each year and having a trained workforce.”

U.S. citizens, said Brim, “will not do” the needed work.

In California, said Vargas, things are different. The undocumented field workers “aren’t seasonal. They live there. Supposedly, those are a lot of the people that would be able to gain legal status in this country” under the Senate plan. “Is that the case anywhere else?”

There are illegal workers in Georgia, as well, said Brim. “There are about 18 growers in the state that do the H-2A program. The balance is based on illegal or domestic workers.”

Brim again rued the fact that “domestic workers won’t work on our farms.” In 2012, between January and July, “I hired 1,650 domestic workers. At the end of July, you know how many I had? None.”

When Georgia passed HB87, which “destroyed” the illegal portion of the workforce, “it cost the ag community about $140 million. We definitely need some new regulations.”