Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Immigration, Legislation, Undocumented Workers

Russell: Legalize Farm Workers

From WatertownDailyTimes.com, Brian Amaral & Marc Heller, Times Staff Writers, 7 May 2011.

New York, meet Utah.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, is supporting a plan to model one facet of the Empire State’s immigration policy after that of the industrious Beehive State’s.

A recently adopted plan in Utah would allow undocumented workers to remain in the state as guest workers, as long as they remained employed. It does not offer a path to citizenship.

“If states like New York and Utah go first, the federal government will follow,” Mrs. Russell said at a news conference Friday.

Dairy farms in particular have faced a vexing problem as the federal government cracks down on illegal immigration; the Butterville Properties farm in Henderson was raided in March and its co-owner was arrested on charges of harboring illegals, prompting concerns over the labor market in New York.

But the federal government has been slow to act on the matter, over concerns about amnesty for illegals — that is, allowing people who gained entry to the United States illegally to stay here, even though they broke the law with their arrival.

Because of that inaction, Utah took the law into its own hands, but not without controversy — and legal action.

“It’s one of our foremost issues, and it just continues to go unresolved,” said Peter Gregg, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau. “This Utah situation could bring it all to a head. That’s a good thing. If we can make it work here in New York, we feel it’d be a great approach.”

Mr. Gregg said the Utah law has come under legal wrangling between the state and the federal government over whether the state can be “players in guest-worker labor.”

New York’s measure — which Mrs. Russell will introduce soon in the Assembly — would be run by the state Department of Labor. It would mandate that farmers prove that they have undertaken “exhaustive efforts” to find American workers. Farmers say that citizens are unwilling to do the work that immigrants do.

“I don’t believe people are choosing to collect unemployment instead of getting jobs,” Mrs. Russell said.

Her Republican colleague, Kenneth D. Blankenbush of Black River, said he would support a plan modeled after Utah’s.

“I really think it provides an immediate solution to the farmers for their labor concerns,” he said. “It’s not waiting for the federal government to pass immigration reform.”

Representatives for state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, the chairwoman of that chamber’s Agriculture Committee, declined to comment on the matter.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, has been working toward a similar solution in Congress but has yet to introduce legislation.

He said recently that an immigration and guest worker program akin to Utah’s appears to have the best prospects in Washington, where the debate about amnesty has locked Congress in stalemate.

Because the Utah law does not offer a path to citizenship, but does give workers already here an opportunity to gain legal status if they meet certain conditions, Mr. Owens said he envisions a similar approach in Congress.

The Utah law also increases enforcement by requiring police to verify citizenship for people charged with felonies and serious misdemeanors.

Finding Republicans, even from rural areas, to sign on is a touchy issue. The GOP has taken a firm stance against letting any undocumented workers remain in the country, but there have been hints of compromise from time to time.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., formerly proposed letting undocumented workers stay if they met certain requirements but has backed away from that position.

In the House, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., in 2006 proposed a guest worker program that would allow undocumented workers already in the United State to apply — but only if they left the country first and applied for re-entry.

A spokesman for Mr. Pence, who is especially popular in conservative circles, had no information Friday on whether the congressman would support an approach such as Utah’s but allowed that his name has come up in discussions about which lawmakers could play a role in finding solutions on immigration.

In the meantime, Mr. Owens and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., introduced legislation to extend the H2A guest visa program to dairy workers. The program caters to seasonal farmworkers, but year-round workers on dairy farms are not eligible.

“Providing dairy farmers access to the H2A program is an important step in improving the current agricultural labor situation in upstate New York,” Mr. Owens said. “Regardless of milk prices, dairy farmers struggle to find labor, which endangers their ability to run their operations.”

Source: WatertownDailyTimes.com, “Russell: legalize farm workers” by Brian Amaral & Marc Heller, Times Staff Writers, 7 May 2011.

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