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Wednesday
May152013

Immigration Reform Could Help Immigrant Farm Workers

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The pay for farm jobs is usually low and the work is grueling. That's why no one should be surprised by a study released on Wednesday looking at immigration and agriculture in North Carolina.

The upshot: Almost no U.S.-born workers are taking farm jobs in that state. And even during the recession, native workers weren't more likely to seek employment in agriculture.

That means that growers need an easy-to-use guest worker program that will give them access to immigrant guest workers without too much expense or red tape. That's the recommendation of the report, which was drafted by two pro-immigration reform groups, the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development.

Growers already have a guest-worker program, and there's no cap on the number of workers they can bring in. But the requirements are too strenuous, so businesses opt for undocumented workers, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest grower association in the country.

Of course, you might wonder why farmers won't just be able to keep the immigrant workers they have now.

That's because immigration reform could shake up the industry.

A reform bill being considered in the Senate would offer legal status to undocumented farm workers who are in the country now. They could become legal permanent residents in five to seven years, if they keep working in agriculture during that time.

However, the assumption is that once those workers are able to leave the fields, they will.

So it's not so much that immigrant workers are better fieldhands or more excited about the job (although they might be), it's that working in agriculture is the only choice they have. And once they have another choice, the expectation is that they'll leave.

There's no question -- fieldwork is one of the toughest jobs out there. And giving growers a continuous supply of cheap labor won't necessarily change that.

But immigration reform would improve conditions for workers going forward, if growers really do use the new guest worker program.

The biggest difference for most workers is that they will now be in the country legally. That should help them to advocate for fair wages and working conditions.

Also, future guest workers wouldn't be tied to a single employer. They would need to work in agriculture, but they could move from one employer to another.

Another big change will be the possibility for citizenship. The Senate immigration reform bill would allow future guest workers in agriculture to become legal permanent residents through most of the same pathways available to other immigrants.

It's unclear how much competition there will be for those visas, but it would be better than the current options for temporary farm workers. Right now, there is no way for them to become permanent residents.

So while immigration reform would give growers what they want -- a steady supply of cheap, captive labor -- it should also improve the conditions for workers. And that could transform the dynamics of the industry in the years ahead.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Apr102013

Immigration Reform May Allow More Foreign Students to Stay in US

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- It will likely be easier for foreign students who earn certain degrees in the United States to stay in the country and work after graduation if immigration reform comes to fruition.

The effect on the U.S. economy and job market could be significant, according to a new Brookings Institution analysis.

"If legislation is passed to create an easier pathway for retaining foreign students that obtain advanced Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees at U.S. universities, the impact could be large: about 96,200 incoming foreign students in 2010 could have become eligible for a green card upon graduation," writes Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst and associate fellow in Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "Currently, only a fraction of these students attain a temporary skilled-worker visa after graduating. The H-1B visa program has been one of the main pathways for retaining American-trained foreign students."

Ruiz notes that the United States attracts 21 percent of all students who study abroad, a higher percentage than any other country. His definition of study abroad includes students in language and certification programs, K-12, associate, bachelor's, master's professional and doctoral degree programs.

But since there are so many native students enrolled in U.S. higher education programs, foreign students make up only about 3.5 percent of higher education enrollment. That figure has remained relatively constant for the past 60 years. Most foreign students are now from Asia -- about 64 percent -- while slightly more than 8 percent are from Latin America.

Even though fewer foreigners study in other countries, they often make up a much larger share of students studying in those countries and some have an easier time staying after graduation. Of the eight countries studied where data is available, only China ranks below the U.S. in terms of the number of foreign students as a total percentage of higher education students.

This is important because most foreign students currently come to the U.S. on F-1 visas, which are non-immigrant student visas that allow foreigners to enroll in academic or language training programs in the U.S. According to Brookings, smaller metro areas in the Midwest have the most incoming foreign students relative to their university student populations. If immigration reform allows these students to stay and work more easily after graduation, these metro areas could "experience the greatest impact in terms of access to a new labor pool."

Brookings also notes that in 2010, there were about 188,000 foreign students with F-1 visas enrolled in advanced degree programs. Of those, only about 26,500 transferred to an H-1B visa from F-1 status.

While some lawmakers have expressed concern that allowing students to stay will limit job opportunities for American students, the U.S. has been struggling to fill STEM jobs and there has been bipartisan agreement around the idea of allowing U.S.-educated foreigners with degrees in the STEM fields to stay and work.

"These students are considered particularly desirable because they, like their American counterparts, offer the types of skills critical to building a vibrant "knowledge" economy -- whether in the United States or elsewhere," Ruiz writes, "Around the world, many nations have adjusted their immigration policies in recent years to better attract highly-educated foreigners."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio