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  Release No. 0222.11
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  U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA) AND AMERICAN FARM BUREAU FEDERAL (AFBF)
 

MEDIA CONFERENCE CALL ON THE NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM

HOSTED BY TOM VILSACK, SECRETARY, USDA AND BOB STALLMAN, PRESIDENT, AFBF

WEDNESDAY, MAY 25, 2011

Audio

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. And thank you for joining us for today's media briefing. On the phone we have Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman. The two will be talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform here in the United States. If you'd like to ask a question of either of our panelists, let us know by pressing *1 on your touchtone pad.

And with that, I turn it over to Secretary Vilsack. Good morning.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Susan, thank you very much. And I really want to take this opportunity to thank the Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman for taking a few minutes from his busy schedule to join us on this call. We're both going to give a short statement and then we'd be happy to take questions from the press that are listening. So if I can ask President Stallman to proceed.

Bob, if you're ready, you go ahead, and then I'll follow.

MR. STALLMAN: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary. The Secretary and I did have a good conversation about this issue a couple of weeks ago and we do agree on the importance of fixing the nation's broken immigration system. To do that, we're going to need comprehensive immigration reform. It's something we've been working on for a lot of years and the need is even greater now than it was when we started.

From an agricultural perspective, our piece of comprehensive immigration reform is to be sure that we have an adequate agricultural workforce and that's a top priority for our organization. About a third of the individuals employed in agriculture, about a million workers, the other two million are family, are hired. They're hired workers. Now no one knows exactly how many of these workers are not authorized to work. They have the documents that employers are required to look at, but employers don't have the capability to assess the -- or verify those documents. And that means that there are a number of workers that are at risk if we move forward in this country and put more stringent restrictions in place.

Now what does that mean for agriculture? Well, about $5 to $9 billion per years of production are dependent on these workers that are here, especially crops like fruit and vegetables, but the livestock sector, particularly dairy is also affected. I think consumers have such a disconnect now with modern ag. production they think fruits and vegetables come from the fruit and vegetable factory down the road. And that's not the case. The factory is the farm. The farmer is the producer, but he needs workers to plant, to tend, to harvest that crop, to provide the high quality supply of, in this case, fresh fruits and vegetables that consumers have come to expect.

And it's spread across the country in terms of impacts.

California, about $3 billion per year in production, depends on these workers. Florida, about $1 billion per year. Washington, $600 million a year. Oregon, $338 million. Texas, $324 million. So you can see it's an issue that's spread across this country.

Recent proposals to put in a so-called mandatory e-verified system which would provide a computer-based verification system to ascertain a worker's legal status are important as far as trying to determine if someone is here legally or not, but the problem with that is our current system, without an alternative labor supply, means that we would lose those workers that are providing that $5 to $9 billion of production.

We have been supporting legislative efforts to reform current guest worker programs. We need new, innovative approaches like programs where biometric identities can be provided to workers who want to come across this border to work, to create greater economic opportunity for themselves and frankly to do the jobs that American workers will not do. And it's absolutely essential for agriculture that comprehensive immigration reform we address this issue of what happens with this nation's agricultural labor supply.

Mr. Secretary, I look forward to working with you and the administration and the Congress in trying to find solutions to these issues because the solution will affect the future of America's farmers and ranchers. Thank you.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Thank you very much and let me reiterate what Bob said earlier. Simply put, most Americans don't realize it, but farmers and the food they put on tables play an important role in the quality of life that we all enjoy, partially because American grown food is relatively inexpensive compared to food in much of the rest of the world. American families can spend more of their income on a home or vacation or college education for their children. In fact, Americans spend only half as much as our total expenditures on food as say the citizens of Italy or Japan.

And immigrant labor plays an important role in making this possible. Every time someone in America takes a bite of American food, someone has picked it, processed it, shipped it, stored it, trucked it, and shelved it. And many of these folks who have done all those tasks are immigrants. I met farmers and ranchers all over this country who worry about the broken immigration system. They're unable to find the necessary number of farm workers and sometimes they struggle to verify their work authorization papers, all the while wondering if they'll get enough help for the next harvest.

And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic workforce, few citizens express interest in large part because this is hard, tough work and even fewer show up to spend the long hours laboring in the hot sun. Simply put, our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers trying to do the right thing and make a living. But again and again good faith efforts to fix this broken system from leaders of both parties fall prey to the usual Washington political games.

Well, just recently President Obama called for a constructive and civil debate around the immigration system that would provide the United States and our farmers a reliable, legal workforce. This solution would continue our work to secure the borders for sure. But it would also hold accountable businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers and it would also provide clear guidance for the vast majority of businesses including our farmers and other employers who want to play by the rules. And it should provide a path to legal status by which those willing to admit they broke the law, pay unpaid taxes, pay a fine, learn English, our nation's system needs a pathway.

Our nation's farmers need a system that will reward them for playing by the rules and not punish them for it. We need to stop threatening the competitiveness of our agricultural economy with broken immigration policy. We need to start this conversation about immigration reform again. We need to keep it in the mind that America's working farmers, ranchers, and farm workers and the food they put on our kitchen tables depend on it.

I appreciate the Farm Bureau's efforts in this area and their call for comprehensive immigration reform to fix this broken immigration system. It's long overdue and it's something that needs to be done and we look forward to working with Congress and others and the Farm Bureau to get it done.

So with that, I'd be glad to open up for questions for myself or Bob.

MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you. Reporters, if you'd like to ask a question, let us know by pressing *1 on your touchtone pad.

We actually do have callers on the line waiting. We'll go first to Ellen Ferguson with Congressional Quarterly. Ellen? Good morning, Ellen.

CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY: Hello?

MODERATOR: Ellen?

CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY: Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes, we can. Go ahead.

CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY: I appreciate your having the conference call. I actually have a question about appropriations. There's a provision in the House Agriculture Appropriations Bill that deals with withholding funds for any kind of work done relating to writing appropriations language or budget language out of USDA.

Do you know anything about that provision?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Ellen, I have not had an opportunity to take a look at what the House has done other than the basic numbers of the budget which frankly will obviously cause us some deep concern, but I haven't had a chance to look at the actual language.

CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY: All right, then let me ask an immigration question. Is there any likelihood of any progress any time soon on the issue of immigration and particularly workers for agriculture?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I think as Bob pointed out, the Congress is considering some legislation focused on an e-verify system. Our hope is that they understand and appreciate that what is needed is comprehensive immigration reform and any program that's structured whether it's e-verify or something else, needs to take into consideration the unique aspects of agriculture. It's one of the reasons why we've asked folks to get engaged and involved in this conversation. The White House has a website in which people can log onto and get involved. It's whitehouse.gov\immigrationaction, all one word. We encourage folks to take a look at that whitehouse.gov\immigration action website.

MODERATOR: We continue with callers on the line. Our next call comes from Matt Milkovich with Vegetable Growers News:

VEGETABLE GROWERS NEWS: Hello, yes. I'm wondering what's the advantage of a comprehensive approach for agriculture versus just passing something like, something similar to ag. jobs?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, let me take a stab at that. I think it's important that we have one system and that the system be predictable, consistent and understandable. And that we create a process by which employers at whatever stage in the agricultural production and processing stage they might be, have some degree of consistency and some understanding of what the rules are. It's difficult to know when someone is documented and when someone isn't. It's difficult when there are efforts of enforcement that basically disrupt not just undocumented folks, but also documented workers and other workers which we've seen in some of the processing facilities.

So our preference is for comprehensive immigration reform so that it's a consistent set of rules that basically says to employers you've got to play by the rules and if you're not, then you're part of the problem, not part of the solution. It says to workers who are undocumented, look, you've got to acknowledge that you're undocumented. You may have to pay a fine. You have to pay unpaid taxes. You've got to learn the language and if you do, there's a pathway to legitimacy here that we want to create. Given the fact that our system has been broken for so long, what's interesting about the system because it's been broken, because there's been conversation about immigration, what we find is that people are unwilling to do what they used to do which was to travel back and forth. They're actually staying in the country and that creates the issue of what to do with 12 million undocumented folks in this country and the reality is if you tried to deport all 12 million of them, it would take several hundred years. It's just not practical.

So I would say, Bob may have a different view about this, but I'd say that what you want is one system, one set of rules that applies to all workers and that's why we're calling for comprehensive immigration reform. And if it's decided by Congress to do something different, then they have to understand that agriculture is in somewhat of a unique circumstance.

MR. STALLMAN: Yes, let me add on just a little bit, Mr. Secretary. The ag. jobs bill is something that's been around now for, I don't know, several years and we have been working with agricultural interests, other agricultural interests on that bill. It is always in our estimation been something that was probably a good idea as far as it goes, but it didn't go far enough. It didn't provide that kind of comprehensive approach. It was going to be in reality a short-term solution that was going to work for three, maybe five years, but then after that you still would fall back into this need for having a program, some kind of comprehensive program that would allow for our agricultural workforce to be there, to be available to producers.

And so that's why we are going to have, I think, have a comprehensive program, the mandatory e-verify discussion that's going on, hopefully will provide an opportunity to once again talk about comprehensive immigration reform, but that legislation as a stand alone, much like ag. jobs is a stand alone, won't be sufficient to solve the problem.

MODERATOR: We continue on the line with Jeff Nalley from Cromwell Ag Network.

CROMWELL AG NETEWORK: Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time today. I would ask this and I know it's a short-sighted question, Mr. Secretary, but what keeps this from being a situation that the administration can provide a temporary fix or somewhat of an alternate solution until Congress is able to act? What keeps us from being able to solve some issues before we get to the ultimate fix?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I think the complexity of it all, you know. If you try to do this thing administratively, you've got a number of bureaucratic obstacles that you have to go through. There are a number of ways in which whatever bureaucratic approach you create can be subject to challenge and again, you then have potential inconsistency of application in various parts of the country. And it doesn't necessarily address the entire supply chain, if you will, set of issues that agriculture, I think, is uniquely positioned on.

I mean you've got folks who pick, package, process, and all those folks are part of this discussion. So I'm just not sure that we have enough jurisdiction, enough reach to be able to do this. And I think frankly, if we do it, we may not do it in precisely the right way. There may be questions raised about how we've done it. What really is needed as a civil debate about an overall comprehensive reform in this country that tells every employer, every worker, these are the rules and everyone is going to play by the rules. And if they abide by the rules, then you're going to be able to work here. You may be able to gain residency here. You may be able to gain citizenship here. But you're going to have a pathway. And if you don't play by the rules, we're going to hold you accountable.

Right now, it's really hard. It's very difficult. What we've got is enforcement and significantly enhanced enforcement, but that by itself is not enough. You have to have the other piece of this which is a process to get people to a place where they know what the rules are and can comply with the rules.

MODERATOR: Up next on the line, Martha Noble with National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition.

NATIONAL SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURAL COALITION: Yes, in looking at the legislation and comprehensive legislation, would you be paying any attention to the rights of workers that are not provided for, farm laborers under federal law, in particularly the right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act?

SECRETARY VILSACK: This is not a situation where we're talking about collective bargaining rights. That's a completely different discussion and an important discussion, but not one that fits within comprehensive immigration reform.

What we're trying to do is fix a broken system and provide some degree of consistency and legitimacy for folks who are working in the fields. Then once that's created, then you can go into a series of questions about the relationship between the employer and the employee and you should. But you can't get to that point until you have some kind of system that allows people to be legitimately here. We don't have that system today.

MODERATOR: Up next on the line from Texas Public Radio, David Davies.

TEXAS PUBLIC RADIO: Yes, how much are people saving by the fact that we have illegal workers picking our crops and if we had complete enforcement and we lost those workers, how high would food costs go?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I don't know that I have specific numbers in terms of how high food costs would go, but I think it's fair to say that if we continue to have this broken system, there will be a day when we're not going to be able to find the workers to do the work and what will happen is we'll either see increase in food prices or just as likely importing additional foods from other countries.

We have a strong agricultural economy right now. We have strong export opportunities. We don't want to jeopardize that by not having a workforce that's capable of getting this job done.

Bob, I don't know if you want to add anything to that.

MR. STALLMAN: Yes, just a little bit, Mr. Secretary. And I did reference it in my opening comments. We did an internal economic analysis here a couple of years ago as part of our efforts in this debate about comprehensive immigration reform and the workers -- and these are assumptions and estimates because we don't really know how many illegal workers are working in agriculture, but we know that there's a significant number, that between $5 and $9 billion per year, billion dollars per year in production is dependent on that labor. So then you have to ask the question if you don't have that labor here, what happens to that production? Well, that production, given food demand, is going to come from some place and then it will come from outside the borders of this country.

Now I don't know what the net effect would be on consumers' prices in their local grocery store, but the source of their product would definitely change if we did not have that workforce.

SECRETARY VILSACK: And that raises issues of food safety with which we obviously have concerns about as well.

MODERATOR: We continue on the line from DTN, Katie Micik.

DTN: Hi, thank you, Secretary and Bob Stallman for having this call today. I was wondering, I've heard a lot of stories from ranchers along the border who say it's not as secure as the Obama administration is saying it is. And I was wondering, you mentioned briefly, Secretary Vilsack, that immigration reform could help that situation. Could you explain a little more, please?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Over the last two years, the President has taken the government's responsibility to enforce immigration laws and secure our borders very seriously. We've dedicated unprecedented amounts of resources to our borders. We've implemented smarter, more strategic interior enforcement policies. And we've had some results. Our borders are more secure than ever. Apprehensions along the border reflect far fewer attempts to cross illegally, while seizures of illegal currency, drugs, and guns are dramatically up leading to increased criminal arrests and prosecutions.

In the last Fiscal Year 2010, the administration increased the number of convicted criminals removed from our country by more than 23,000 which represents a 70 percent increase from the previous administration. We've also doubled the number of worksite enforcement investigations conducted in FY2010 as compared to FY2008. And these investigations have led to millions of dollars of fines levied against employers for violating those laws.

We've also improved the legal immigration system by reducing the backlog of immigration applications. All of that is important. All of that is necessary, but the reality is that is not enough. It's not enough to simply secure the border. There needs to be a comprehensive immigration system that deals with the 12 million people who are here, many of whom are working in our farm fields and to be able to allow us to continue to enjoy the kind of agricultural production, the diversification in food, the affordable nature of the food that we have in the United States. All of this is tied to ultimately getting an immigration system that works, that allows the farmers and ranchers of this country to be confident that they will always have the workforce they need to get the work done.

MODERATOR: We have time for two more calls. Ed Maixner with the Kipplinger and then that will be followed with Amtnita Cadiz with La Opinion.

Ed, are you there? Ed, are you there? Ed, we'll give you one last time. Are you there?

Okay, we go to our next call with Amtnita Cadiz with La Opinion.

LA OPINION: Thank you very much. Amtnita Cadiz with La Opinion.

Secretary Vilsack, I would like ask you on the e-verify, how mandatory is e-verify in the whole country, the agricultural industry, and specifically if you can elaborate a little more for a state like California how will that affect the industry there?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I'll attempt to try to respond to that and certainly would encourage Bob to weigh in as well. You know, the e-verify system creates a potential difficulty particularly for smaller businesses because they would have to invest resources in the equipment and training needed to participate. Now it would give legal workers the opportunity to correct their records. It would be accompanied by a legalization program that would allow unauthorized workers to get right with the law by registering and obtaining proper documentation if they meet rigorous criteria which would include background checks, fingerprinting and so forth. All that is going to require a substantial amount of time and resource and for smaller operations may be difficult to comply with and that then creates a situation where you've got inequity in the process.

We really want, again, is comprehensive immigration reform that provides one set of rules for everybody and rules that basically take into consideration the cost to small business and don't make it such a difficult process that you're tempted not to comply and not to participate. That creates additional problems.

MR. STALLMAN: And I'll add on a little bit, Mr. Secretary. The mandatory e-verify program has the issues that you talked about in terms of costs for employers. Just little things like does a small employer have an internet connection because that's one thing that would be required. And then there's some technical issues in terms of the validity of the database and those kind of things which could get complex to resolve.

Our concern is that without a legal agricultural guest worker program in place or without comprehensive immigration reform that accomplishes all of that, you do have that roughly half of one million workers out there that frankly would be screened out if we have a mandatory e-verify program. If that happens, the risk of production losses or production moving outside of the country is very real without having workers to replace those. And you mentioned California specifically, about $3 billion per year in production is dependent on those workers who frankly are here with fraudulent documents. And so you have this huge gap. If you just put in a mandatory e-verify program all of a sudden there's this huge gap in agricultural workers that has to be filled from someplace or else the crops won't get planted and harvested. That's the reality of the situation.

SECRETARY VILSACK: And the fear is that you do that which appears to some as a comprehensive solution when in fact, it's not a comprehensive solution. It doesn't deal with the folks who are here, who have been here for a considerable period of time. So again, the call here is obviously designed to say it's time for an extended conversation, an adult conversation about this issue. We've got a broken system. We've had it for far too long. It creates real problems for workers and employers alike. It creates real problems in agriculture and we've got a good thing going for the United States in terms of agriculture. We would like to continue it. But to do that, at some point in time, we're going to have to get serious about comprehensive immigration reform.

Bob, I want to thank you for taking the time today.

MR. STALLMAN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

MODERATOR: You've been listening to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman. They've been talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform here in the United States. We want to thank them and we also want to thank those who called in and for those who were listening on the line.

That concludes today's media briefing. Thank you.

(Whereupon, the media briefing was concluded.)