In testimony delivered February 26 to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, National Chicken Council President Mike Brown testified on behalf of a broad food manufacturers coalition about the need for a stable and permanent workforce that can help sustain the rural communities where meat and poultry facilities operate.
The hearing, "From H-2A to a Workable Agricultural Guestworker Program," was the second in a series of several hearings on immigration issues in the subcommittee. In addition to Brown, also testifying were: Bob Stallman, president, American Farm Bureau Federation; Chalmers Carr, president and CEO, Titan Farms; and Giev Kashkooli, political and legislative director, third vice president, United Farm Workers.
"To date much of the discussion has focused on the need to retain highly skilled workers such as scientists and engineers, and the need for additional temporary agricultural workers," said Brown. "These are important objectives, but they do not meet the needs of our industry sector. We are manufacturers, wanting a stable and permanent workforce that can help sustain the rural communities where we do business."
Brown in his testimony highlighted five major themes for immigration reform on which the coalition is focused: border security; a very simple improvement to the E-verify system as an alternative to a national identity card; clarity in anti-discrimination laws; an occupational visa category that the meat and poultry industry can use that could be tied to local or regional employment; and options to effectively address the 11 million undocumented workers in the shadows of our economy. "Some think there is an economic incentive for manufacturing employers to hire illegal immigrants at below-market wages," said Brown. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Our industry needs a stable workforce. We seek workers who will stay on the job long enough to become skilled and efficient, helping us to keep our food products and employees safe."
In terms of strengthening employment verification, Brown said that the government does not provide employers with a reliable verification method to prevent identity fraud and confirm whether new hires are legally authorized to work in the U.S. "E-Verify is a step in the right direction but does not work adequately in its current form," he said. "If strengthened, this program will serve as an effective and efficient 'virtual border'." Brown said that the current system, however, does not account for the meat and poultry industry's most common issue, identity fraud, e.g., a valid Social Security number that does not relate to the person presenting it. In addition to documents such as a driver's license or social security card which are easily falsified, the coalition believes employers should be allowed to require an E-Verify Self Check. E-Verify Self Check is an online service that allows U.S. employees to check their employment eligibility in the U.S. before beginning a new job.
In return for participating in these and other aggressive screening programs, Brown said that the coalition supports providing a safe harbor for employers that utilize the E-Verify Self Check and follow the automatic referral process. "An employer that does everything possible to avoid hiring unauthorized aliens should not be exposed to further liability," he contended.
Continued access to the labor pool is also a key element of the coalition's framework for immigration reform. "An effective occupational visa system may be the most important barrier to illegal immigration," said Brown. "The right visa system with the right screening tools will in effect be a second 'virtual border'." The existing temporary programs for general labor skilled workers are for seasonal labor only, which does not help manufacturers, whose occupational needs are year-round and ongoing. "Congress must create a general labor skilled immigrant visa for the manufacturing industry to recognize that employer needs in industry are permanent in nature, not temporary," said Brown. "Employers should have the ability to recruit outside of the U.S. and sponsor workers for a defined period of time."
A copy of the full testimony, including the coalition's complete framework of immigration reform concepts, is available online.