Florida business leaders call on Congress for immigrant visa reform

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Florida’s economy relies heavily on agriculture and construction, industries that depend on a stable workforce, many of them taken from nearly 3.5 million immigrants living in the Sunshine State.

Often, companies rely on the national immigrant visa system to provide a steady stream of laborers authorized to work in the U.S. An improved immigration system, they believe, would help both Florida and businesses in the state that are looking for qualified individuals to fill open job positions.

In a telephone press conference on Wednesday, members of Florida’s farming, construction, and IT industries joined congressional representatives, calling on Congress to address immigration-visa reform.

Hosted by Matt Muller of Tallahassee-based Front Line Strategies, the group included James Zumwalt from the office of U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida’s 1st Congressional District and Janell Hendren, National Affairs Coordinator, Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

Also appearing were business leaders from construction and agriculture groups, two Florida industries that rely the most on seasonal work. Everyone agreed that the current national immigrant visa system is both burdensome and expensive.

Rick Watson, legal counsel for the Associated Builders & Contractors of Florida, says he would like Congress to enact a temporary guest worker program, as a way to “relieve the pressure” on companies that use immigrant labor.

“We need to simplify the process,” Watson adds, adding that the U.S. immigrant visa system is both tedious, time consuming and costly.

Steve Johnson, owner of Johnson Harvesting in Wauchula, says as it stands the worker visa system makes it tough for companies to find the legal workers.

“To get a visa program where we can just connect for an order, get the guys to do what we need them to do, and back is a huge cost advantage,” he says.

Dealing with issues of worker’s compensation and talk of raising the minimum wage, Johnson, who also serves as Labor Advisory Chair for the Florida Farm Bureau, says his industry is under increasing pressure to lower labor costs. A visa reform program will end up being cheaper for business, as well as provide have a stable workforce.

Adding to Florida’s immigrant labor woes, especially in agriculture,  is the crisis of citrus greening. As one of the biggest threats in generations to Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry, greening has also had an effect on Florida’s immigrant labor pool.

“With shortage of the crop, plants close earlier,” and need fewer workers, Johnson says.

On the other hand, as devastating as the problem is, greening does offer one bright spot for companies dealing with the legal immigrant shortage.

“Greening has actually helped the situation,” he adds, “because we have less to pick.”

Florida growers have been furiously working on a cure for citrus greening, which caused unprecedented rates of pre-harvest fruit drop in the early part 2013-14 growing season.

Once there is a cure for greening, however, labor shortages will return.

“We have been able to squeak by,” Johnson says of this season’s citrus crop, “but once the situation recovers; we are going to have a crunch.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.