Dianne Feinstein

The Need for AgJOBS is Now - Oct. 20, 2006

Dianne Feinstein
October 20, 2006— U.S. Senate, Washington, DC
Congressional floor speech
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MRS. FEINSTEIN: Mr. President, I rise to congratulate the distinguished Senator from Idaho on his comments. I subscribe to them 100 percent. I congratulate him and thank him for the leadership he has provided on the AgJOBS program. I don't think there is anyone in the U.S. Senate who knows more about what the needs in agriculture are across this great land than Senator Larry Craig. He has been consistent and he has been devoted. I think his expressions here today are really the expressions of virtually everyone in the Senate who knows what is happening in their own State with respect to agriculture today.

I also rise joining you, Mr. President, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, and the one who moved the AgJOBS program on to the immigration bill that is part of the Senate bill. I come here with a plea and that plea is, if there is going to be a border security bill before the full United States Senate, add the AgJOBS bill to it, because it is a crisis and it is an emergency and there is a practical need to do so.

It just so happens that there are two amendments at the desk that would do this. There is a Republican amendment on AgJOBS sponsored by the Senator from Idaho, and there is a Democratic amendment on AgJOBS sponsored by the Senator from California. They are one and the same. They could be easily added by either one of us and either one of us is willing to cosponsor the amendment of the other. The reason is because it is in fact an emergency.

This is harvest season out in all the great States. I was once told -- Senator Craig, you know him well -- by Manuel Cunha, of the Nisei Farmers League, just for raisins alone in my State, it is 4 counties and it takes 40,000 workers to harvest those raisins.

The Senator mentioned that California is so large in agriculture. I want the President to know that it is a $31.8 billion industry. That was in 2004. It is an enormous industry. We have 76,500 farms in California. I am asking every one of those farm owners to weigh in at this time. Let the Senate know that there is now an opportunity to see that you have a certain, stable workforce. Weigh in with the Senate and say: Put AgJOBS on the border security bill.

We have 1 million people who usually work in agriculture. I must tell you they are dominantly undocumented. Senator Craig pointed out the reason they are undocumented is because American workers will not do the jobs.

When I started this I did not believe it, so we called all the welfare departments of the major agriculture counties in California and asked – can you provide agricultural workers? Not one worker came from the people who were on welfare who were willing to do this kind of work. That is because it is difficult work. The Sun is hot. The back has to be strong. You have to be stooped over. It is extraordinarily difficult work.

For a State as big as mine, there is an immigrant community which is professionally adept at this kind of work. They can pick, they can sort, they can prune, they can harvest – virtually better than anybody. This is what they do. This is what makes our agricultural community exist.

It is very hard for a farmer to hire a documented worker. It is very hard to find that documented worker. So if they are going to produce they have to find the labor somewhere.

My State produces one-half of the Nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts. One-half comes from California. We produce 350 different crops. We have an opportunity now, with this bill, to get adequate labor for this harvest season on this border security bill.

We know the votes are here in the Senate. We know the votes are in the House of Representatives. We know the President would sign the bill. Why not do it? Why not do it? Both Senator Craig and I want to plead with the leadership of the Senate, allow us to put this amendment up before the Senate. We can limit our debate. We know the votes are there. Let me ask the Senator:

Senator, when this matter came before the full Senate, that is before the immigration bill, how many votes did you have for the AgJOBS program?

MR. CRAIG: Senator, I believe when there was a clear and clean vote on AgJOBS alone there were 53 who voted for it that day and there were 4 absent who would have voted for it. I believe there are between 58 and 60 votes for the AgJOBS provision and bill you speak to.

MRS. FEINSTEIN: I actually believe, if I might respond, that there are 60 votes because of the amendments that we made in Judiciary – which certainly brought me along, and I wasn't there before.

MR. CRAIG: That is correct.

MRS. FEINSTEIN: And I think it brought others along as well.

MR. CRAIG: If the Senator will yield, you make a tremendously important point. The original AgJOBS bill that brought the vote I just spoke to is not the bill before us now. The amendments that you have brought and the amendment that I brought -- because the Judiciary Committee itself changed some of it at your guidance and direction, and on the floor we added additional amendments – added the safeguards and protections and fines and the requirement of paying back taxes, to cause that illegal, who might become legal through this process, certain responsibilities that were not in the original bill.

MRS. FEINSTEIN: That is correct.

If I may, through the Chair, I would like to ask the Senator one question. You mentioned the H-2A Program which in my State has not been a widely used program. This is a reform, also, of the H-2A Program, to make it more broadly applicable across the line. Is that not correct?

MR. CRAIG: You are absolutely correct. It identifies and deals with those agricultural workers who have been here for 3 years or more, who are undocumented, who could become legal. That is step one. Then it deals with a reform, streamlining of and a more usable H-2A Program, to implement an effective guest worker program.

The point you are making I think is very important for the Senate to understand. If we were to pass AgJOBS tomorrow, if it were to become law, many agricultural workers who were once in the field working but may have moved somewhere else in our economy with the opportunity to become legal would return to agriculture. It is not letting more across the border. It is causing those who have moved to construction and housing and other places to say, Gee, you mean I could become a legal worker if I went back to agriculture and stayed there for 150 workdays?

The answer is yes. There could be a near immediate relief brought by the passage of the AgJOBS provision.

MRS. FEINSTEIN: The Senator is absolutely right. I think he has made an excellent point. We know that many of the workers in agriculture who are undocumented have gone on to work, for example, in construction, in the service industry, in the restaurant industry, in the hotel industry, and so on and so forth. But they work in the shadows. They work with fear today.

The program that the Senator and I are speaking of is not just a pile of programs. This is a 5-year sunset program. But you would see how it would work. You would then have documentation of every individual that is legally working in that program.

In my State of California, growers are reporting that their harvesting crews are 10 to 20 percent of what they were previously due to two things: stepped up enforcement, a dwindling pool of workers, and the problem that ensues from both.

We have an opportunity to put AgJOBS on this bill, a modified AgJOBS, reforming the H-2A program and a pilot AgJOBS for 5 years. I will explain very quickly how that works. I think it is important that people understand this.

The first step would require the undocumented agricultural workers apply for a "blue card," if they can demonstrate that they have worked in American agriculture for at least 150 workdays over the prior of 2 years. The second step requires that a blue cardholder must work in American agriculture for an additional 5 years and work 100 days a year, or 3 years at 150 workdays a year; again, a blue card, biometric, would be documented. For the first time you would know who the worker is. The farmer would have certainty that he can hire that worker. If the worker meets this expected work requirement, they will then be eligible for a green card. Employment would be verified through the employer-issued itemized statement, pay stub, W-2 forms, employer letters, contracts, or agreements, employer-sponsored health care, timecards, or payment of taxes. The program is capped at 1-1/2 million blue cards over 5 years. It will not have an annual cap.

I have explained it. My State alone has a million agricultural workers. How many does Idaho have? I ask the Senator through the Chair.

MR. CRAIG: We are not quite sure. We believe it could be between 35,000 and 40,000.

MRS. FEINSTEIN: I thank the Senator very much. That may be a much smaller amount.

But virtually every State represented in this Chamber can come forward with a like amount of people. Virtually every Member in this Chamber can come forward with problems they are having with harvesting at this particular point in time.

I am told there are problems harvesting citrus in Florida, apples in New Hampshire, strawberries in Washington, and cherries in Oregon. In Wyoming, it has been reported that the labor shortage played a central role in the eminent closure of the $8 million Wind River Mushroom Farm.

Let me quickly through run a couple of other things.

Perhaps the most impacted are the organic farms, which are highly labor-intensive. Hand-picked crops such as at Lakeside Organic Gardens, which happens to be in my State, are suffering as fields go untended and acres have been torn up because there is no one to harvest them. The situation is so bad that this particular farmer, Dick Peixoto, has been forced to tear out nearly 30 acres of vegetables and has about 100 acres that are compromised because there is no one to weed them. He estimates his loss so far this season to be $200,000. That is worse than anything he has seen in 31 years of farming.

Some fields in the Pajaro Valley in Santa Cruz County are being abandoned because farmers can't find enough workers. Farmers in that area say there are 10 to 20 percent fewer workers available to harvest strawberries, raspberries and vegetable crops. That is the great Pajaro Valley that produces artichokes and acres and acres of row crops. They say we have sustained strawberry and raspberry losses due to shortage of labor.

Strawberries lost are approximately 100,000 cartons for the fresh market. Raspberries approximately 50,000 cartons. Due to the shortage of labor, we were unable to harvest 900,000 pounds of lemons and 128,000 pounds of grapefruit.

These are some examples of what is happening. You can pick up newspapers, the San Jose Mercury News, headline: "Worker Shortage Crippling Farmers." It goes on and depicts it.

Morgan Hill: Farmers are reporting a shortage of labor to harvest crops forcing them to take huge losses. The impact is mixed, varying with the amount and type of crops a farmer is growing. Those growing more fragile crops such as strawberries and peppers have been scrambling to find enough workers to pick the harvest.

This goes on to say they cannot harvest their yields. Labor pains increasing for the great San Joaquin Valley that Senator Craig spoke about. Manuel Cunha said symptoms of labor shortages are showing up with fewer pickers in the Valley's orchard.

Between the tree fruit guys, the crew sizes are varying from a crew of 20 to 22, down from 9 to 15. What is happening now is we are starting to see a trend going toward table grapes. The Valley is starting to get into the table grape harvest in the Arvin area. The word I am hearing is that the table grapes may take workers from tree fruits because the free fruit workers are only working so many hours in the day because of the demand. Union-produced labor shortages became more pronounced in the coming weeks with the start of the raisin grape harvest.

It goes on like this in article after article.

The Farm Bureau Federation of my State: Headline: "Labor Shortage Teeters on Critical Edge."

As the border with Mexico tightens, and Congress continues to drag its feet on passing comprehensive immigration reform, farmers and labor experts say that the California farm labor pool is rapidly shrinking. A lag in reporting labor statistics makes it hard to pinpoint exactly how short the labor supply really is, but many growers put the gap again at about 10 to 20 percent shortage Statewide.

This goes on and on, report after report.

There is rarely a time where issues come together and it is possible to move aggressively on something such as this. This is one of those times. AgJOBS has been debated on the floor of the Senate. It has been debated in the Judiciary Committee. It has been amended. It has come out of part of the immigration bill.

Senator Craig and I have worked to see that the amendment at the desk remedies all the problems that were brought up in the last floor discussion. It is ready to go. It can be added to this bill. It will pass in the House. Why won't the leadership allow this amendment? It would be one thing if there was not a crisis out there. It is another thing if there is a crisis. And there is a crisis. Everyone in this body knows that. Everyone knows farmers are scrambling. Everyone knows farmers are losing their crops. Everyone knows there is produce on the ground that can't be harvested. Why don't we do something about it? And everyone knows that agricultural labor in the United States of America is virtually dependent on undocumented workers. This is a way to document them. This is a way to enhance security. This is the way to get the workforce for our farming communities that we need.

I went to ports, and I saw boxes and carton after carton of export products at the ports. We depend on exporting our fruit. You can't do it if you can't harvest it. What happens when the prices begin to rise in the markets? And they will. Lettuce that can't be harvested, tomatoes that can't be harvested, almonds, raisins, grapes. We had a chance to do something about it, and you have Senators standing here on the floor saying we could do something about it now, it will pass, it will be signed, it will go into law.

AgJOBS is the one part of the immigration bill about which there is uniform agreement. Everybody in both bodies knows that agriculture in America is supported by undocumented workers. As immigration tightens up, and they begin to pull people and deport them, as farmers have trouble finding them, as they hide in the shadows more, the result is our crops go unharvested.

We are faced today with a very practical dilemma and one that is so easy to solve. The legislation has been vetted and vetted and vetted. Senator Craig, I, and a multitude of other Senators have sat down with the growers, with the farm bureaus, with the chambers, with everybody who knows agriculture, and they have all signed off on the AgJOBS bill. Why don't we pass it? What kind of a plea will be heard? How many farmers have to be ruined to prove a point that I don't understand, that I can't fathom, that I can't believe we turned down this opportunity to solve a real problem.

If you want a Republican amendment, it is at the desk. If you want a Democrat amendment, it is at the desk. They are both the same.

I am simply here to say, Leader, let this come to the floor. Leader, take the steps that can save American agriculture right now. Leader, pass this bill which has be vetted, which has been debated, which has been discussed in both Houses, several committees and on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Simply bring this amendment to the floor. Don't fill the tree and not allow this amendment.

I say once again, the 75,000 farmers in my State, if there ever was a time to weigh in, this is it. If there was ever a time for you to pick up that phone and call every Member of this body and anyone you can and say, Hey, I am a farmer, and I can't find labor to harvest my crop, this is a bill that can help me, and I want you to pass it now.

In my State, 76,000 farms. If half would do it, if a quarter would do it, if a tenth would do it, we would get this bill passed. For farms in other States, this is your moment. Stand up, weigh in. We are, after all, a representative democracy. We represent people. We represent States. These people and these States have weighed in, in the press, and said: We are in trouble, we need help.

Now is the time. I say to the Republican leader of the Senate, do not turn your back on the farm community of America. This community needs undocumented labor to plant, to prune, to clear out weeds, and to harvest. That has been the case for years. Give it certitude. A pilot program; 5 years; 1.5 million blue cards over the 5 years; specific requirements; taxes paid; filing with the Government; fines paid. But people can work and harvest the crops.

I say to the Members of this Senate, it would be a terrible tragedy if we turn our backs on the breadbaskets of America.

We have an opportunity. It is so simple. Just enact this AgJOBS program now.