"We would really like to have a program that is easier and more user-friendly for us — something that would be more flexible and allows us to trade (workers) with the dairy guys, with the floral guys," he said. "We'd like to not only be able to use them in the field. We'd like to use them in the processing plant."
The exemptions granted the sheep industry under the H-2A program make it the envy of other agriculture industries "because it works," says Larry Williams, attorney for the Western Range Association.
While many agriculture industries would benefit from changes to the farm visa program, it is important that sheep ranchers not lose ground in the process.
"We have a very small part of the industry under the H-2A program. We're a little concerned about gross caps because of the size of our industry and the needs that we have. We might just get run over," Williams said.
Now that the government shutdown has ended, Parker said he hopes Congress will once again focus on immigration reform. He and other business interests in the state are lobbying members of Utah's congressional delegation about immigration reforms they need.
“Our standpoint is, let’s just get something done that makes sense. If we have to tweak it as we go forward, let’s do that," he said.
From a national perspective, the American Farm Bureau Federation wants comprehensive immigration reform to include “an adjustment of status for experienced but unauthorized agricultural workers who currently reside in the United States,” according to a position paper published in September.
This would include an obligation to work in agriculture for a set number of years. Once that requirement is met, workers could seek permanent legal status.
The federation also seeks an uncapped agricultural worker visa program that will “ensure agriculture’s future legal workforce” and give workers and producers alike more flexibility.
Sheep ranchers like Bitner agree that other industries would benefit from more flexibility, but he notes there are costs associated with maintaining a workforce.
Bitner provides his herders room and board as required under current H-2A regulations. The herders live in campers among the sheep they tend and they send their grocery lists to Bitner via iPhones.
Aquino has solar power to light his camper, propane to heat it, and depending upon where the camper is parked and the antenna is aimed, he can watch television to help break up the monotony and loneliness. He keeps in touch with friends and family via Facebook and other social networks.
The toughest aspect of the job is Utah's harsh weather, Aquino said. "The winter is a little cold. It's a little hard."
While he's separated from his family for three-year stints, herding has enabled him to purchase a home for his family in Peru and pay college tuition for his eldest son, who is studying administration and marketing, Aquino said.
"(The herders) do pretty amazingly well. I've never had one smoke, and most of them don't drink. They're good, honest, pretty decent people," Bitner said.
"The reality is they’re not jobs Americans are willing to do. Let’s give them the help they need to provide the service they’re willing to do, and quite honestly, they do a pretty darned good job at it," he said.
The Utah Compact, which urges treating immigrants with humanity and dignity, provides a good framework for the debate on the national level, Parker said.
"Let’s get that done on a national basis because it is the federal government’s obligation and responsibility to do it," he said, "so let’s get it done. Let’s quit playing around.”
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