VERMONT — A bill passed in June by the U.S. Senate would overhaul the nation’s immigration policy and grant legal protection to foreign nationals already working in the country.
Vermont dairy farmers are looking for immigration reform such as this because they find it difficult to fulfill their labor needs without a federally recognized legal status for all migrant workers. Those farms increasingly depend on foreign labor due to a lack of available labor.
But the future of the bill, formally titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, is unclear; the U.S. House has yet to take up the legislation.
A feature of the bill that is particularly attractive to many dairy farmers is that it would create a new “Blue Card” system that would eventually make foreign laborers eligible for citizenship.
The existing H2A visa program for farm workers is only available for seasonal crop workers. Thus, dairy laborers, who work full time, are ineligible.
“Most immigrant workers on dairies present green cards,” said Peter Conlon, who helps farmers throughout the Northeast connect with foreign laborers in his job with Agri-Placement Services. “They are treated like American workers and they are paid at least minimum wage, but many farms pay above that.”
These workers also pay all applicable federal and state taxes, including Social Security deductions, he said.
“Most workers have Social Security cards,” Conlon said.
In order to work in the U.S. year-round, laborers must obtain permanent resident status, informally known as a green card, because of the color of the documents when they were introduced in 1946. Eligibility is divided into two categories: family and employment.
The employment category is further divided into five sections, EB 1-5. EB-1 and EB-2 give preference to highly skilled workers, researchers and holders of advanced degrees. EB-4 creates special exemptions for religious workers and current or former U.S. government employees. EB-5 is for investors who must invest $500,000-$1 million in the United States to be eligible.
Thus, immigrant agricultural laborers are only eligible for EB-3, for skilled laborers and other workers. Each of the five categories has an annual quota, though the wait under the EB-3 program is several years.
Because dairy laborers are ineligible for the H2A visa program and it is difficult to obtain permanent resident status with an EB-3 green card, many workers enter the country illegally. The lack of a sensible farm labor immigration policy exacerbates the problem of illegal immigration into the United States, Conlon said, because once workers are here, they cannot travel back home.
“The problem is that travel is so difficult — guys are either abandoning their families or bringing them here because they can’t travel back and forth. We’re creating an incentive for illegal immigration,” Conlon said.
THE BLUE CARD SYSTEM
The proposed Senate plan would create a “Blue Card” system to grant legal status to laborers already in the United States.
In order to be eligible, workers must have been in the country since Dec. 31, 2012, pass a criminal background check, have performed 575 hours or 100 days of agricultural work in the two years before 2012, and pay a $100 fee if 21 or older.
Blue Cards could be authorized for up to eight years. After five years, holders would be able to apply for permanent resident status. Farmers would not be penalized for employing undocumented workers while Blue Card applications are pending.
Separate from the Blue Card program, which is for permanent immigrants, a new temporary visa program for agricultural laborers would be created.
In order to be eligible for this program, workers would have to pass a background check, be at least 16 years old, and must not have been previously deported from the United States.
Employers would be responsible for housing laborers, and must offer the same wages and benefits as they would to U.S. workers.
The Migration Policy institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said of the program in a policy paper, “low- and middle-skilled workers also would be beneficiaries of expanded visas. In a significant departure from current policy, the legislation would allow these workers to fill year-round, longer-term positions.”
Under this system, the number of agricultural workers would be capped at 112,333 per year.
Passage of the Senate bill would have a significant effect on Addison County and dairy farms in Vermont.
Dairy laborers could acquire permanent legal status, which would enable them to travel back and forth to their home country. Workers would also be able to move freely in the United States without fear of being detained by federal immigration officials and deported.
The House of Representatives has not put the Senate bill to a vote. Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, who is one of 189 sponsors of a House immigration bill, supports a path to citizenship such as the one offered by the Blue Card. But, like other political observers, he can’t predict when or if the House will vote on an immigration bill.
If no deal is reached by the end of the 113th Congress, which adjourns at the end of 2014, the Senate bill will expire and legislators will have to start from scratch.
Conlon said it is imperative that Congress passes an immigration bill.
“Right now, no farmer knows what the future holds for labor,” he said. “No one can plan and grow; they need to know their labor source.”