SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — With immigration reform heating up in Congress, one congressman from Vermont and two from New York plan to introduce legislation in the U.S. House to expand a guest worker program to thousands of immigrants working illegally on the states' dairy farms.
Right now, dairy farms are ineligible for a temporary visa program aimed at seasonal workers. They say they have a hard time hiring dependable local workers to milk their cows so they rely on immigrants.
The legislation would create a three-year visitor program for those workers, which could be extended another three years, allowing them to be in this country for six, said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who announced the legislation on Tuesday in Vermont with New York Congressman William Owens, a fellow Democrat. Republican New York Rep. Richard Hanna, also is on board, they said.
"You'd take this program out of the shadows and give some security to our dairy farmers who are the hardest working folks in Vermont and some clarity and legal status to the workers who are here working in the barns and getting this extremely important work done," Welch said.
The proposal is based on legislation introduced in the Senate in the past by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who will be key in making sure the farm labor piece is included in immigration reform, Welch said.
"He's at the chokepoint on immigration reform and this is an issue that he has taken to heart," he said.
An immigration bill in the Senate aims to overhaul the country's agriculture worker program to ensure that farmers and growers have a steady supply of labor. Farm workers who are already here would get a quicker path to legal status than other immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, and a possible new visa program would make it easier for foreign workers to come to this country.
On Tuesday, the Vermont Senate sent a bill to the House that would allow foreign workers, many of whom are on rural farms and say they have to rely on employers for rides to the grocery store of doctor, to get driver's licenses in Vermont.
Bringing up the dairy farmworker legislation now in the U.S. House makes it a priority, said Owens, who estimated there are thousands of illegal farm workers on New York farms. In Vermont, estimates put the figure at between 1,500 and 2,000.
"We have many farmers who unfortunately are forced into the position where they are unable to secure legal farm labor. This is a very serious problem," he said.
Owens and Welch aren't concerned about how the issue is addressed, but that it is resolved, Owens said.
"I made it very clear that I will not vote for an immigration reform bill that does not include a farm labor piece," he said.