Wash. Growers Encouraged by Senate Immigration Plan

By Liz Jones

Farmers in Washington State are celebrating this week’s news about progress on federal immigration reform.  A bipartisan group of US senators unveiled a proposed framework for legislation on Monday.  It specifically addresses the country’s reliance on undocumented farm workers…and the need to legalize this workforce.

This week, something new is sprouting in the Northwest’s fields and fruit orchards: optimism about immigration reform.

Fazio: “We’re really encouraged about taking the next step. It looks like we’re here.”

Dan Fazio is director of the Washington Farm Labor Association. It’s the biggest provider of foreign workers for Washington agriculture. Last year, the organization brought more than 4-thousand seasonal workers here to fill a labor shortage.  Fazio is almost giddy to see momentum in Congress around immigration.  In particular he looks forward to talk about a new guest-worker program for agriculture. He says that could be transformative for Washington growers.

Fazio: “And so you know, we’ve got land, we’ve got capital, we’ve got markets to sell our crops – it’s a big export engine. And right now the only thing holding us back is we don’t have enough workers.”

He describes the government’s current guest worker program as monumentally complex. So instead, many growers rely on undocumented immigrants to harvest Washington apples, cherries and asparagus.  Fazio says about 75 percent of Washington’s farm workers are in the country illegally. The Senate plan released this week would give agricultural workers a path to citizenship.

In Congress, discussions about comprehensive immigration reform will start in the Judiciary Committees. In the House, that committee includes newly minted Washington Congresswoman, Suzan DelBene. She expects a lot of negotiation about granting citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants.

DelBene: “I think it’s important that we do have an earned path to citizenship and that that’s called out. But I think exactly how that’s going to work is something that we need to work on in the House, together with the Senate. So I think it’s going to be a work in progress but I think it’s a good start.”

On the question of increased border enforcement, DelBene said she supports a strong border. But the policies must also allow commerce to flow back and forth.  To the freshman Congresswoman, DelBene reads it as an encouraging sign that her colleagues on both sides of the aisle are coming together quickly on this hot issue. The House Judiciary committee is set to hold its first immigration hearing on Tuesday.

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