Agricultural employer and farm labor leaders called on Congress to seize a rare chance and pass legislation for an agricultural guest worker program and provide a way for millions of currently undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, Keene, Calif., and Charles Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives spoke at an April 22 hearing, designed to review the newly introduced Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, Conner said he believes the facing a “once in a generation” opportunity to reform the country’s immigration policy.

Labor shortages have begun to erode the U.S. agricultural base, Conner said, with more than 80,000 acres of fresh produce that was once grown in California now being planted in other countries.

“Without adequate labor, estimates are that thousands of farms could fail and farm income could drop by five to nine billion dollars,” Conner said.

In Rodriguez’s remarks before the committee, the farm labor leader said that agriculture and labor groups have come together to help solve the immigration issue.

“The UFW and our nation’s agricultural employers have often been at odds on many policy issues — but we have now come together to unify our nation’s agriculture industry,” Rodriguez said.

He said the legislation provides a process for expedited adjustment of status for current undocumented workers in agriculture. The legislation’s agricultural worker visa program means less paperwork for employers than the current H-2A system, and includes protections and provisions to guard against corrupt recruitment practices for guest workers.

“Requiring recruiters to register in the U.S. and to post a bond will shed light on an industry that currently has no regulatory oversight either in the U.S. or Mexico, he said.

Conner said that housing the guest worker program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture was critical for agriculture.

“This is a significant change from the current regime administered by the Department of Labor, who has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of agriculture and our labor needs,” Conner said.

Conner said the immigration reform legislation provides short-term stability through the Blue Card program that will grant work authorization for current undocumented agricultural workers. The reform package will give long-term stability through a new agriculture worker visa program with options for “at will” employees that can move from employer to employer and “contract visa” employees that commit to work for an employer for a fixed period of time.