Jan. 31 2013 09:08 AM

Senate proposal lays out separate path for farm labor with immigration reform.

by Amanda Smith, Hoard's Dairyman Associate Editor

Dependent on worker availability, region and farm size, foreign labor has become vital to accomplishing daily operations on some dairy operations. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of eight senators proposed a new framework for immigration reform in the U.S. Prior to this, the last major attempt at U.S. immigration reform was in 2007.

The key components of the four-page Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform relating to the agricultural workforce were in sections one and four of the proposal. In the last paragraph of Section 1, "Creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already here that is contingent upon securing the border and combating visa overstays," the senators note:

Similarly, individuals who have been working without legal status in the United States agricultural industry have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America's food supply while earning subsistence wages. Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, 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. These individuals will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under our new agricultural worker program.

The second mention of agriculture, and the dairy sector specifically, came in the senators' fourth point, "Admitting new workers and protecting workers' rights," noting that the proposed legislation would:

Create a workable program to meet the needs of America's agricultural industry, including dairy, to find agricultural workers when American workers are not available to fill open positions.

According to an article from Reuters earlier this week, many of the 1.5 million farm workers employed in the U.S. annually - perhaps 500,000 to 900,000 in all - are believed to be in the country illegally.

While there are no guarantees yet, it is time our lawmakers sat down and tackled immigration reform. A comprehensive plan is long over due and essential for many agricultural operations that rely on foreign labor to produce a safe, sustainable and affordable food supple for our nation's citizens.

The complete plan can be found here.

Senators drafting this plan included: Chuck Schumer, John McCain, Dick Durbin, Lindsey Graham, Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio, Michael Bennet and Jeff Flake.