Douglas hopeful immigration legislation will benefit farmers

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(Host) Congress this week starts work on new immigration reform legislation.

And Governor Jim Douglas is hopeful the bill will help Vermont farmers get the migrant labor they need.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Douglas was in Washington for the National Governor’s Association. He spent two nights at the White House, and then met Tuesday with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

The governor says a rare confluence of political views could improve the chances of immigration reform passing this year. Douglas says that he, Senator Leahy, and President Bush all share the same approach on immigration.

(Douglas) “Secretary Johanns is very supportive of immigration reform, as is the president who discussed it when we met with him yesterday. Senator Leahy has indicated he’s going to hold hearings on the topic, and I really believe we have a chance to form a bi-partisan coalition to move this legislation forward.”

(Dillon) Vermont has about 2,000 Mexican immigrants working in the dairy industry. Immigration advocates say the workers help the dairy farms survive.

But many of the workers are here illegally. They live in isolation on the farm and risk deportation if they’re caught.

Farmers say they turn to immigrant labor because Vermonters no longer want to do the work. Tim Buskey is administrator of the Vermont Farm Bureau. At a recent forum on immigration in Middlebury, Buskey said low milk prices and a chronic labor shortage are the two toughest issues facing dairy farmers.

(Buskey) “Absolutely need the workers, whether they’re American workers or Mexican workers. And we’ve tried and tried and tried. And in all of the cases that I’m aware of to get American workers to do the job, we just don’t have them.”

(Dillon) Legislation backed by Leahy would allow farmers to employ the immigrant labor, if they can prove they can’t hire local people to do the work.

Douglas says he hopes Congress can strike a balance between those who want to deport all the illegal workers, and those who want to grant citizenship rights to immigrants.

(Douglas) “I think the right policy is somewhere between those extremes, perhaps something that requires re-registration, perhaps the payment of a fine to indicate the fact that there was a violation of the federal law but then a method of registration and documentation that will allow a guest worker program. So it will take some work, but I think there is enough consensus that some reform is required that we can find a way to do it.”

(Dillon) The Leahy bill would expand a visa program that apple growers in Vermont use to hire temporary workers from overseas. The program now only covers seasonal workers. Leahy says the legislation allows workers who are employed on the farm year-round to qualify for the work visas.

(Leahy) “More and more, we can’t get along with temporary agricultural workers. If you have a diary business, you need somebody year-round unlike apple picking and some of these seasonal things we see not only in Vermont or some other parts, where you might need somebody for a matter of weeks. Here you need somebody year-round.”

(Dillon) Under the Leahy bill, a worker would not have to return to Mexico to apply for the visa. They would have to show they’ve paid taxes and have worked at the farm for at least 150 days.

The Vermont Farm Bureau says it supports the bill.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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