Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Already suffering from the drought, California growers will lose even more if the House of Representatives doesn’t take up immigration reform this year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

He was joined in a May 5 teleconference pushing for immigration reform by Arturo Rodriquez, president of the United Farm Workers Union and Manuel Canhu, president of the Nisei Farmers League. Rodriquez and Canhu called out Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, representing the San Joaquin Valley, on his lack of support so far for immigration reform. McCarthy is majority whip for the House GOP, the third ranking Republican in the House, and is responsible for gathering support within the party for legislation that will be voted on.

Vilsack said there are more than 81,000 farms in California, helping make it the No. 1 agricultural state in the country. He said 73% of workers on California farmers are not citizens of the U.S., and immigration reform would provide a reliable workforce for agriculture and help strengthen the state’s agriculture economy.

The lack of comprehensive immigration reform has created uncertainty and instability in American agriculture, he said. The Senate immigration bill passed last year would increase California farm income by $500 million, Vilsack said.

“The reality is that immigration is not just good for the state of Californian and American agriculture, it is the right thing to do for the country,” he said.

Immigration reform would create job growth, boost Social Security revenue and reduce the national deficit, he said, calling on House leaders to “get something passed” so the issues can be put to rest after differences between the House and Senate bills are resolved.

“By not having comprehensive immigration reform, it really puts farm workers and farms at a significant disadvantage,” he said.

Vilsack said some California farms don’t have enough labor to harvest their crops.

Rodriquez said that no industry would benefit more from comprehensive immigration reform than agriculture. Last year, he said farm workers and agricultural employers came together to create the agricultural labor provisions of the Senate bill S. 744..

The labor leader said the UFW believes there are enough votes to pass immigration reform in the House.. “A majority of the House of Representatives said they are prepared to vote for comprehensive immigration legislation that includes a road map to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,” he said.

Both Rodriquez of UFW and Canhu of the Nisei Farmers League called out McCarthy for his lack of support for immigration reform. “If Congressman McCarthy does not want to vote for immigration (reform) then he needs to let the rest of the members of the San Joaquin Valley in the House of Representatives have a chance to vote on immigration legislation,” Rodriquez said. “All we are asking is either that we schedule a vote or present a proposal that works for our country and economy.”

Recent polling in California, Rodriquez said, suggests that three-quarters of those surveyed support immigration reform.

“The farm workers work 10 hours a day to harvest fruits and vegetables; we’re asking Congressman Kevin McCarthy and House Republican leaders to give us ten minutes to schedule a vote,” he said.

Canhu said it is vital that action on immigration reform happens by June, so the bill can go to conference in July and August and get to the president in September to sign. He said there has been an increase in drug cartel activity targeting farm workers, and a further delay in reform could make it worse, he said.

“The cartel is increasing in this country, victimizing these farm workers,” he said.

The drought and uncertain labor conditions has led to a decrease in acreage and an increase in drug cartel activity, Canhu said. Drug cartels are pressuring undocumented farm workers to become involved in the drug trade and also controlling terms of their employment, Canhu said.

“If House members don’t act within the next couple of months, that means they’re going to allow the cartel to increase the trafficking going on by victimizing families of farm workers,“ he said. “You cannot allow the cartel to set up business in this state by victimizing these people because of their documents,” he said.

Ken Barbic, senior director of federal government affairs for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., said there is still a chance for House action on immigration reform this year.

“I think in terms of immigration possibilities, I think there is still activity in the House, still conversation among members, and there is still a window that we could see potential action this summer,” he said.

Agriculture, high-tech, and other industries are still engage in the push for immigration reform, he said.

“This year presents the best opportunity for action to occur,” he said. If the House does take up immigration reform, it likely will be a June and July window,” Barbic said.