With the U.S. Congress seemingly eager to grapple with immigration reform, those who work on farms and the ranchers and growers who hire them want to make sure mistakes of the past are not repeated and that a framework for meeting continued needs of employers is addressed.

The buzzword that kept cropping up at a forum on the subject at California State University, Fresno, was “future flow,” a reference to the need for a lawful system that will meet the need for 1.5 million farmworkers nationwide.

What speakers said they do not want is the type of reform that came with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Several said it didn’t provide a pathway to a legalized work force, instead opening the door to use of falsified I-9 documents and ultimately resulting in many agricultural workers leaving the industry.

The event was co-sponsored by Bravo Ag Group and brought together about 90 growers, farm labor contractors, representatives of California Congressional and Senate delegations and others interested in how reform is being shaped.

The event opened with remarks from Fred Franzia, CEO of Ceres-based Bronco Wine Co., a major employer of farmworkers.

“The farmworker is a viable and important part of our being in the San Joaquin Valley,” Franzia said, calling for a system that will keep them on the job, protect their rights and not put them in the position of “being on the dodge and acting like they’re some criminal element.”

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks, described herself as “not a farm girl” but “here to listen to you.” She said “high level and intense conversations are going on in Washington and at the national level on what is the best answer for agriculture in immigration reform.”

Several speakers said the H-2A visa program that allows foreign nationals to come here temporarily to work in agriculture is costly, laden with bureaucratic roadblocks and often not responsive to timely needs of growers of perishable crops.

Between 60,000 and 90,000 workers are brought to the U.S. under H-2A as laborers on farms and ranches. That’s just a small percentage of the 1.5 million workers that are needed for those jobs.

The H-2A program is used heavily by the North Carolina Growers Association, but the association’s deputy director, Lee Wicker, conceded administering it requires a staff of 10 in addition to three field representatives.

One of the requirements of H-2A is provision of housing. California’s housing costs make that prohibitive, said, Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for Western Growers Association. Moreover, he said, there is a “not in my backyard” attitude that inhibits providing housing.

Calls for flexibility

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition is proposing a system that will give both employer and employee flexibility. It would have two options.

One calls for at-will employees to have the freedom to move from employer to employer without any contractual commitment and a visa term of up to 11 months with USDA registered employers and then returning home for 30 days.

The other calls for contract employees who commit to work for an employer for a fixed period of time and would have a visa term of up to 12 months and be conditioned upon a commitment to return to their home country for at least 30 days over a three year period.

Resnick and others noted that there has been a significant change in the tone of conservative commentators now leaning toward such reforms. Some of that has to do with a Republican party out to burnish its image in the light of a lost presidential election.

“One major national party recognizes that, as (Republican senator) Marco Rubio put it very eloquently, ‘It’s very hard to have a discussion with people about your common values when they think you want to deport their mother,’” Little said.

Several speakers and audience members said they would like to see the framework for a legitimized workforce in place before implementation of E-Verify, an electronic system employers used to verify if a person is legally authorized to work in the United States. There appeared to be a consensus that E-Verify will be a certainty and a concern that its immediate effect would be the loss of many farmworkers.

Stephen Mascarenas, president of Mid Valley Labor Services, said the number of workers coming from Mexico is declining because of fears of crossing the border, gang wars and an economy in Mexico that is growing at a higher rate than in the United States.

Mascarenas said he would like to see “a co-op of farmers” that would serve as an exchange system for moving migrant workers from job to job as different crops are planted, pruned or harvested.

“That would give control back to the farmers and the farm labor contractor,” he said.  “And it would be a way of knowing who’s in our country, who are they working for. It would provide a sense of security.”

Barbara Cecchini said between 200 to 300 farmworkers normally apply to work at her family’s asparagus farming operation in Northern California. So far, only 35 have applied.

She fears some of the crop will be lost, which happened last year as well.

“I need people coming back, and they aren’t coming back,” she said.