What a difference an election can make.
Just a few months ago, the prospect of farmers who rely on immigrant labor getting any relief from Congress seemed like a futile hope.
But now, with the wide recognition of the crucial role Hispanic voters played in November, that has all been turned on its head.
The tidal shift apparently began right after the election with a bipartisan group of senators who began informal discussions that culminated last week with a broad outline of a way to move forward.
That bipartisan approach has been adopted by a similar group of representatives in the House, where hearings began this week headed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va.
Goodlatte’s stance on the issue going into the hearings may be as good an example as any of the sea change taking place on immigration.
According the The New York Times on Monday, Goodlatte “has established a solid record of opposition to any measures he regarded as amnesty for illegal immigrants. But he said the Judiciary hearings would include scrutiny of proposals to offer legal status to most of the immigrants living illegally in the country.”
The question of whether that status includes citizenship for those 11 million people is likely to occupy most of the spotlight as these hearings play out, but that’s unlikely to be the issue that most interests the farming community.
The key provision of the Senate plan that will bear the closest watching for farmers is one that would create an agricultural worker program to meet their needs when American workers are not available.
Such a provision promises to give relief not only to the produce and fruit growers who rely so heavily on immigrant labor in the West and South but also to many Northeast dairy producers.
When the last major immigration reform measure passed back in 1986 with the backing of President Ronald Reagan, I saw firsthand the effect it had in the apple-growing region of Washington state, where I then lived.
I remember the night during the winter pruning season when an orchardist brought two of his new workers to my door in response to an ad for a trailer I had agreed to rent for my landlord.
Santiago and Clemente, who are brothers, had come so recently from Mexico, they were standing barefoot in the snow in my yard. But they had cash in hand and were always prompt in paying their rent.
Although they were considered migrants, their employer soon found they were such good workers, he kept them on year round.
It wasn’t long before Santiago’s oldest daughters, who were just beginning school, were proficient enough in English to serve as translators.
I noticed recently in an article in the newspaper that I worked for then that one of those girls went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is now working in the schools there.
In an email this week, she told me her sister is also a college graduate, teaching second grade. Everyone in their family is now a U.S. citizen, except their mother, who will soon take her test. And their father and uncle still work for the same orchardist.
The need for such workers has, if anything, grown greater in recent years as indicated by reports of tomatoes rotting on the vine and apples left on the tree for lack of labor to pick them.
According to a recent Bloomberg report, “The situation has prompted food companies to turn for their supplies to Brazil, Mexico and other countries where the labor force is more reliable.”
The dairy industry is in a similar situation. In an article last year in Lancaster Farming, staff writer Chris Torres wrote about a 2009 National Milk Producers Federation survey, which found that of 5,005 dairy farms in 47 states, at least 50 percent used migrant labor.
Increased enforcement of current laws has created some real problems for some of those farms. About a year ago, for instance, Kreider Dairy Farms in Manheim, Pa., suddenly lost about 100 workers, a third of its workforce, after an audit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
Unlike seasonal agricultural producers, the dairy industry has not been able to benefit from guest worker programs, which exclude year-round immigrant employees.
The National Milk Producers Federation and other ag groups are trying to change that in current efforts at immigration reform.
Even if such efforts succeed, they may not solve the farm labor problem. According to a report at farmpolicy.com, wages have been rising on farms in Mexico, which could well result in a short supply of farm labor here no matter what Congress does.
One provision of the Senate proposal is to provide a quicker path to citizenship for farmworkers. Such a measure could be crucial for attracting immigrant farm labor to this country.
Farmers would do well to pay close attention to how these provisions fare in coming debates and make their feelings known to Congress.