Congress should create a visa program, valid for at least three years, for foreigners willing to work year-round on farms or in meatpacking and processing plants, an industry group said on Tuesday.

The meat industry coalition pushed for the work visa as a way to assure "a stable and permanent" workforce, during a House of Representatives hearing on potential replacements for the current H-2A guestworker program, which issues visas for up to 10 months for farm labor, such as those picking fruit and vegetables.

Many or even most of the 1.5 million agricultural laborers in the United States are thought to be undocumented.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte of the House Judiciary Committee, who is from a poultry-growing region of Virginia, said designing a work program for agriculture was a critical part of overall U.S. immigration reform.

He said the H-2A program fails to provide enough workers on time for growers and sets their wages well above local rates.

Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, called for a work visa good for at least three years "to recognize that employer needs in industry are permanent in nature, not temporary."

UNION WARNS OF SECOND-CLASS LEGAL STATUS

Brown spoke on behalf of the Food Manufacturers Immigration Coalition, which is composed of poultry producers and meat processors.

A longer-term visa is needed to offset the expense of training meat industry workers, Brown said. The workers could apply for visa extensions and there would be "a path to permanency."

Giev Kashkooli, vice president of the The United Farm Workers of America union said he was opposed to expanding an agricultural worker program to include processing plants.

In written testimony, he said that if a new guest worker program for agriculture workers is created the workers deserve job mobility, strong labor and wage protection and the chance to eventually become a citizen.

"We have seen Europe's failed experiment of second-class legal status," said Kashkooli, referring to foreign workers in European factories. He said comprehensive immigration reform should also give current farm workers a reasonable opportunity to earn legal status and citizenship.

A dozen farm and landscaping groups, working as the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, provided new details of their proposal for a guestworker program. It would allow workers to stay in the country for up to three years if they are under contract with an agricultural employer. An 11-month visa would be available for workers who want to move job to job.

The coalition said also undocumented agricultural workers should be granted work authorization that carries "a minimum commitment to agriculture for a five-year set term." After that, they could continue to work "under the Ag Card", which gives them legal status to work in the U.S. or "access immigration channels to adjust to a permanent status."