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New worker visa program could help Kansas add farm jobs, says report

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Monday, July 29, 2013, at 3:20 p.m.

TOPEKA – Kansas could add 757 new farm jobs that would bolster the state’s agriculture sector and generate tax revenue for state and federal governments if Congress approves immigration reforms that include a new worker visa program, according to a new report from the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, the report shows Kansas stands to lose $7.6 million to $13.7 million of agriculture production if immigrant labor were eliminated.

In a conference call Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the report provides new evidence of the need for comprehensive immigration reform that has been approved by the Senate but has yet to be formally debated in the House.

“The bottom line is simply that the lack of labor will today and will in the future, if it continues, result in a decrease in agriculture production, a decrease in agriculture outputs and exports, which obviously will cost farm income and jobs in the economy,” he said.

The study says there aren’t enough U.S.-born workers to meet agriculture’s labor needs. One survey between 2007 and 2009 found 71 percent of crop workers were foreign born.

Nearly three-fourths of farm workers who have been working for less than two years don’t have workers visas or other authorization, the study shows.

A USDA survey found the share of hired crop farm workers who were not legally authorized to work in the country hovers around 50 percent.

A bill approved by the Senate would create a pathway to citizenship for people who immigrated illegally as long as they pass national security and criminal background checks, pay any back taxes and pay penalties. Agriculture workers could get blue cards that allow them to work legally and travel outside the United States. They could apply for permanent residency after five years of work, and they could eventually become citizens.

The Congressional Budget Office projects 1.5 million agriculture workers and their dependents would obtain legal status by 2018.

The bill requires 700 miles of fencing on the Mexican border, doubling the current length of the fence, before people who immigrated illegally could be on the path to citizenship.

Kansas Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts opposed the Senate bill.

In a statement, Roberts criticized the bill’s 1,000-plus page size and scope. “It didn’t work with Obamacare and it’s not going to work with immigration,” he wrote.

“And as for the path to citizenship?” he asked in a statement after his vote. “Who do we honestly expect to raise their hand, identify themselves as an illegal immigrant, agree to pay years of back taxes, pay an additional fine, get in line for a chance, just a chance, at getting citizenship in about a decade?”

Moran also said he’s skeptical of scope of the reform bill, and he has said the first priority should be secure borders.

“Rather than focusing on tackling the problem in manageable increments and delivering the reforms Americans are asking for, the Senate chose to lump every immigration and border security problem together into one massive and flawed bill,” he said in a statement after his vote.

Reach Brent Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brentwistrom.

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