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Agriculture Industry Calls For More Immigration Reform

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Luke Runyon
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KUNC and Harvest Public Media

In the debate over immigration reform, farm and ranch groups have been among those calling for change the loudest, and most frequently. But after President Obama announced changes to the immigration system, the response from the agriculture industry so far has been mixed.

In an announcement Thursday, Obama detailed how his actions will delay the deportation of the undocumented parents of children in the country legally. The changes also give protections to any children who were brought to this country illegally before 2010. About 5 million people in the country without documentation will be affected.

Out of that 5 million people, upwards of 250,000 work on farms and ranches, according to a release from the United Farm Workers, one of the largest farm worker unions in the country with deep roots in activism. In its reaction, UFW took an optimistic tone.

“President Obama took the steps within the executive branch’s authority to begin to fix our broken immigration system,” the group said in a statement. “Today, the UFW celebrates.”

Larger farm groups were less than celebratory, worried that the president’s action could stall any congressional momentum.

“That’s only a bandaid,” said Kristi Boswell of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We need a much more permanent work authorization for our current workforce and we also have to have a new flexible guest worker program to fill the shortages we already face.”

Any sweeping reform will require a Congressional fix. In the meantime, fruit and vegetable growers and dairy operations face the biggest holes in their labor force, and many depend on immigrants, Boswell said. Without more substantive change to the country’s immigration system, Boswell said farmers and food producers will be unable to fill positions to pick fruit and herd sheep.

“We cannot yet assess the full impact of the president’s actions on agriculture, but we know this: Congress must reassert its constitutional authority to make laws and pass immigration reform legislation critical to the needs of our industry and the nation,” said Western Growers Association President Tom Nassif.

Even though some groups framed the announcement as a good first step, and others warned it could only cause consternation, there was one common theme among the agriculture industry: the onus now is on Congress.

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