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Franken supports immigration reform

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 05/06/2013 11:22 AM

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken doesn't know if he'll support an immigration reform bill that was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, but he said the nation's immigration system is broken and is a drag on the entire economy.

Franken held a conference call with reporters on the issue last week and was joined by Pat Lunemann, president of Minnesota Milk Producers Association and a dairy producer from Clarissa.

Lunemann has been working on immigration reform since 2009 and said the issue may be starting to go somewhere.

Immigrant labor is vital to the nation's food supply, with half the dairy cows in the United States milked by immigrant labor, Lunemann said. The number of immigrant workers in fruit and vegetable production is likely higher than half and there is also a lot of immigrant labor employed in food processing, he said.

Agricultural workers can now come into the United States legally under an H-2A visa, but those apply only to seasonal workers, not to dairy farm employees who typically work year-round.

The immigration reform bill was developed by a gang of eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans. It covers a range of immigration, employment and border security issues.

Components of the bill include additional funding for border security, temporary legal status for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, a path to citizenship for children brought to this country by their parents and changes to visa regulations.

The need for this reform bill is clear, Franken said. He wants to make sure farmers and agricultural employers have a source of workers and that undocumented immigrants have a path to get right with the law. Another priority is to make it easier to bring in new workers when needed.

Franken was asked if there would be enough employees for dairies if the farms paid a living wage.

Lunemann said he doesn't know of many dairy farms who pay minimum wage. Most dairy farm employees earn $30,000 to $50,000 annually and the average wage is $11 per hour. Many are getting benefits as well. Ninety-eight percent of dairy farms in the United States are family owned and operated.

Franken strongly favors improving the E-verify system, which the legislation requires employers use prior to hiring an immigrant. The problem is that E-verify gives false positives, wrongly rejecting a person once every 140 times. Small businesses don't have the resources to deal with these kinds of errors.

"Big businesses have the HR department to deal with these errors, but for a small business where your accountant may be also your front desk clerk and your mechanic and maybe your spouse, these kinds of errors are going to be a huge problem, so we need to iron out a few provisions," Franken said.

He said the error rate needs to go down before E-verify is mandated. The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of improving the E-verify system.

Lunemann said if a legal employee is rejected, employers could have a lawsuit filed against them. Once every 140 times is a significant risk for an employer, he said.

Other priorities for Franken:

• Allowing LGBT Minnesotans to bring a spouse or partner into the country.

• Allowing immigrants to bring siblings into the country. Minnesota has a tradition of welcoming refugees who lost their parents in refugee camps. In those cases, older siblings often act as parents.

• Protecting children of immigrants. He talked of immigration raids in Worthington in 2006 that stranded children. Parents had no idea where their children were and children didn't know where their parents were. In some cases, children came home from school to find their younger siblings home alone.