U.S. Ag Secretary: Immigration reform key for Fla. industry


Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack speaks at the DuPont Beaver Creek research facility, Friday, March 29, 2013, in Johnston, Iowa.

AP
Published: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 11:56 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 11:56 a.m.

Comprehensive immigration reform is critical to secure the workforce needed by Florida's multibillion-dollar agricultural industry and would benefit the broader economy, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview with The Gainesville Sun.

Vilsack has been on a media blitz with reporters in farm states to emphasize the need to get something done on the immigration reform bill before the House goes on a monthlong recess at the end of the week.

The Senate passed a bipartisan reform bill in June to secure the borders and provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally. Republican leadership in the House plans to split the legislation into five or six component parts for a possible vote in October, said U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"The House may have thoughts to improve the bill. That's what the process is about," Vilsack said. "But we can't get to that point until we have competing bills. If the House has to do it in bite-sized pieces, they need to get it done. I don't see much in the way of floor action."

Having enough agricultural workers is a problem in states such as Florida that have a lot of fruit and vegetable production that relies more heavily on noncitizen labor, he said.

According to a report issued Monday by the White House, 59 percent of the workers in Florida's $7.8 billion farm industry are non-U.S. citizens, the third-highest rate in the nation behind California (73 percent) and Washington state (60 percent). Of that 59 percent, probably 60-70 percent are in the country illegally based on Department of Labor surveys, Vilsack said.

Some farms already have faced a labor shortage of noncitizen workers because of increased border security, deportations and fears of crackdowns, he said.

The result is lost economic opportunity as farmers cut down on production or lose crops already planted while production moves overseas, Vilsack said.

The loss of noncitizen labor would result in crop losses of $560 million to $1.01 billion in Florida, according to the report.

"That's why a comprehensive immigration bill is important as uncertainty about immigration law makes it harder to secure the workforce because people are not willing to come out in the open and work," he said.

The Senate bill would create a "blue card" program specifically for an estimated 1.5 million agricultural workers, spouses and children that allows them to work legally while paying taxes. After five years, they would apply for permanent resident status and eventually citizenship.

The bill also would phase out the H-2A temporary agricultural visa in favor of a new W3 visa for agricultural workers with a contract for employment and a W4 visa for workers with an offer for employment.

Quoting federal estimates, Vilsack said providing a way for noncitizens to pay taxes would reduce the federal deficit by $850 billion and keep the Social Security system solvent for an additional two years.

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, whose district include Alachua and Marion counties, has called the immigration bill "ill-conceived" and said he favors reform on a smaller scale.

He said reform should start with increased border security, saying the current bill would do little to stem the flow of immigrants coming into the country illegally.

Yoho said he favors reforming the agricultural guest worker programs to include national identification for workers who would pay taxes.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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