Recent survey results suggest 70 percent of Americans would support a streamlined and sensible program to allow immigrant farmworkers to legally enter the U.S. to work in agriculture.

“They (those surveyed) believe we should have a sensible guestworker program for agriculture,” said Tom Nassif, Western Growers’ President and Chief Financial Officer during a March 28 conference call with reporters.

“They do not believe these workers would take American jobs.”

The January survey gleaned insight from 1,000 people across the nation representing a broad cross section of business, political, and ethnic backgrounds. The Tarrance Group-conducted survey was commissioned by Western Growers, a California-based farm trade organization.

For years, agriculture has sought reforms in bringing a legal and reliable supply of immigrant workers to U.S. farms and ranches. Congress has rejected comprehensive immigration reform which hinted at any possible pathway to citizenship.

The proposal floated by Western Growers and 100-plus agricultural groups would address an improved guestworker program strictly for agriculture minus the citizenship factor.

“I don’t think there is an appetite for comprehensive immigration reform (nationally) so that’s why we’re trying an ag-first proposal,” Nassif said.

An ag-first plan could operate parallel with the current H2A program where farmworkers enter the U.S. for 12 months and then return home. The workers could renew for another year. The proposal would not permit farmworkers to bring families into the U.S.

The survey is the result of a conversation between Nassif and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. Speaker Boehner believed constituents would not support Congressmen who support a flexible guestworker program including the new version floated by the agricultural industry.

Nassif says the survey provides Congress with valuable statistical information on the pulse of American voters across the political aisle on immigration reform; not just agriculture’s opinions.

“The initial insights of the American voters – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Conservatives, Tea Party advocates – are that we should have a sensible guestworker program for agriculture,” Nassif said.

The agricultural community could float the new ag-only proposal to Congress prior to the fall elections. Nassif opposes attaching the language to the next Farm Bill which is in early deliberations by the U.S. House and Senate. Due to budget concerns and other issues, it is uncertain whether Congress will even pass a new Farm Bill.

“We should not do anything that jeopardizes the Farm Bill,” Nassif said.

Passage of immigration reform legislation is a long shot.

“All of us have seen any immigration reform as a long shot; certainly a long shot before and maybe a long shot after the election,” Nassif said.

Brian Nienaber of The Tarrance Group shared other survey findings:

  • Overall, 70 percent favor and 27 percent oppose immigration reform for agriculture;
  • About 80 percent surveyed in the Central Plains region support the concept compared to about two-thirds in the South Central and West regions.
  • 69 percent approval was noted in states with a 10 percent or higher employment rate.
  • States with eight percent or less unemployment supported the proposal by 73 percent.
  • 65 percent of Hispanic men and women support the proposal.