Co-sponsors of the bill are Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, S.C., John McCain, Ariz., Marco Rubio, Fla., and Jeff Flake, Ariz.; and Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez, N.J., Richard Durbin, Ill. and Michael Bennet, Colo.
Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association — another founding entity of the coalition — said the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers is “broken beyond repair.”
She said the 20 billion apples grown in the U.S. annually have to be picked one at a time by hand, creating a seasonal need for about 70,000 harvest workers.
“This bill sets up a workable program,” Foster said during the press conference.
Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, another founding entity of the coalition, said the agricultural components of the immigration reform bill took months of negotiations.
He is confident the legislation will make it to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law, despite widespread reports that many conservatives in Congress plan to stall it indefinitely.
“This coalition will play a significant role in immigration reform being passed this year,” Nassif said.
Nassif also said that he did not think members of the fresh produce industry would be troubled by the bill’s mandatory use of what some are describing as an expanded version of the current E-Verify program.
The existing E-Verify program will be repealed if the bill becomes law.
“E-Verify has always been supported by our membership,” Nassif said.
Stenzel from United Fresh had similar thoughts.
He said that opposition to E-Verify in the produce industry in the past has been related to the mechanics of the program, not its principals.
Nassif and Stenzel also voiced strong support for the wage requirements of the bill, as did the apple association’s Foster and Florida’s Stuart.
The bill defines hourly wages based on job classifications such as graders/sorters, agricultural equipment operators and farm workers.
For example, the wages for the lowest paid of those three classifications — farm workers would be set at $9.17 an hour for 2014, rising to $9.40 and $9.64 for 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Note on correction: Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, was incorrectly identified in the photo caption. He is seated third from the left.