Immigration reform dominates Zeldin’s meeting with farmers

Many farmers across the East End of Long Island are hoping their congressman will push for immigration reform in order to stabilize the local agricultural industry’s workforce and allow them to hire enough workers.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) addressed those concerns during the Long Island Farm Bureau’s annual breakfast meeting Saturday at its headquarters in Calverton.

Karl Novak of Half Hollow Hills Nursery in Laurel and president of the farm bureau stressed to Mr. Zeldin that agricultural revenue has continued to decrease since 2014 due to a lack of workers.

“How is Congress going to help us with immigration reform and a program that will help us gain access to a stable workforce that’s willing to perform agricultural tasks?” he asked the congressman. “That’s a huge issue right now.”

Mr. Zeldin said he believes there’s a better chance of passing immigration reform only after progress has been made with “border security and interior enforcement.”

“Then you’ll have more support for what to do with the people who are here illegally right now,” he said, to which Mr. Novak and other farm bureau members responded by saying they also support border security.

“I would love to be part of getting something across the finish line to deal with everyone who is here illegally,” Mr. Zeldin added. “I’ve never been one of those people who says ‘Deport them all.’’’

Most of the discussion Saturday surrounded enhancing programs such as H-2A, which is one of the current visa systems farmers use to hire workers.

Mr. Zeldin said new secretaries for the Department of Labor and Department of Agriculture are about to be confirmed and there has been discussions about moving the H-2A program’s jurisdiction from DOL to USDA in an effort to “break the log jam” of processing applications.

Yet, some farmers said this is the first season they were able to secure their workforce on-time using the H-2A program. After the meeting, Mr. Zeldin described that news as promising.

“This is the first update I’m receiving that, for the first time, they’re getting their approvals on time,” Mr. Zeldin told the Riverhead News-Review. “If DOL is going to process the approvals on time, then that eliminates one of the major reasons — if not the primary reason — it was being proposed to shift the jurisdiction away.”

While some progress has been reported this year, farmers said Saturday they believe more needs to be done with immigration reform to address their workforce needs.

Jim Glover of Glover Perennials in Cutchogue said his biggest concern is labor and believes the current political climate surrounding immigration reform is “making everyone nervous.”

“I don’t have enough help for my business,” Mr. Glover said. “I can’t even think about expanding my operation in the area which I grow my perennials because of the scary situation in this country with immigration.”

Mr. Glover also requested that the there be flexibility to hire seasonal, as well as year-round employees.

“I want to hire when I want to hire and I don’t want to go through 10 reams of red tape to do so,” he said.

Mr. Glover, who said he doesn’t participate in the H-2A program, added it currently appears he’ll be short by a couple of workers this season and has been filling positions creatively with college interns.

Farm bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said he believes the state’s decision to increase the minimum wage will also make it harder for farmers to hire workers.

“They’re going to take the easy, fast-food restaurant jobs,” he said. “Farm labor is a very difficult job and this is where the H-2A and immigration programs are going to help us the most that might not necessarily help some of the other states that have a minimum wage that’s closer to the federal minimum wage. The increase in the number of people through the H-2A program is going to be particularly important right here.”

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a state law that will gradually raise the state’s minimum hourly wage of $9.75 to $15 by 2020.

Among the other requests farmers made to the congressman included allowing laborers to work at different farms under the federal program and extending a worker’s visa to three years for workforce stability. Mr. Zeldin described those ideas as “reasonable.”

In addition, farmers said they’d prefer to have the same workers return annually so they don’t have to waste money on training new hires. Cutting the red tape mandated in the program, such as advertising in multiple states, would also be helpful, farmers said.

Mr. Zeldin asked the group to keep in touch with his office about their concerns and said his office has a staffer who handles immigration issues full-time.

He also thanked the farm bureau for organizing the meeting, which he described as taking place with “no distractions.” Mr. Zeldin, who has been criticized for not holding a town hall meeting, said his goal is to find “settings” like Saturday’s event to address his constituents’ concerns in a meaningful way.

“There’s just a lot of settings out there with a lot of intensity,” he said. “There are a lot of settings where the meeting just derails right off the bat. It’s very unfortunate.”

Outside the building during the meeting, a couple of protesters stood in the rain holding signs demanding Mr. Zeldin hold a town hall meeting. Riverhead Town police were present in the parking lot during the congressman’s meeting and later confirmed there weren’t any incidents or arrests stemming from the protest.

Mr. Zeldin said after the meeting he enjoys attending the annual event because the farm bureau consists of a diverse group that represents many industries.

“They have an understanding that their voices are a lot stronger if they’re all fighting for these issues together,” he said. “It was a great discussion.”

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Photo: Long Island Farm Bureau president Karl Novak, right, and Congressman Lee Zeldin at Saturday’s annual breakfast meeting in Calverton. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)