YAKIMA, Wash. — In the national debate on immigration reform, advocates for agricultural interests have one main focus: the future flow of workers.

“Legalized workers are going to see bigger and better opportunities for themselves and their families,” Lee Wicker, deputy director for the North Carolina Growers Association, said in a speech Thursday in Yakima at the Washington Farm Labor Association conference.

“As you call your congressmen and your senators, I think it’s crucial to focus on future flow.”

Future flow is a common thread in the history of large waves of immigration to the United States. As blue-collar immigrant families attain citizenship and closer ties to their new country, the theory goes, they develop more wealth and ultimately create a demand for a new wave of workers in skilled labor jobs.

Agriculture wants its place at the table in drafting immigration reform because any changes could bring stability or insecurity to the industry, said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Our consumers deserve a legal and stable workforce,” Boswell said to a packed ballroom of agriculture employers at the Yakima Convention Center. “Our food is going to be picked by hand whether it’s here or abroad.”

The American Farm Bureau, and about a dozen other national agriculture groups known collectively as the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, are pushing a plan in Congress that deals less with the issue of citizenship and more with a clear and flexible guest worker program.

Their proposal would allow workers currently abroad and those here illegally to receive 11-month agricultural work visas with no limit on how often they could be renewed. The only burden for workers, who would have the choice to leave their employer for a different one, would be that they spend 30 days outside of the country before their visa is renewed.

A separate proposal for contract workers would tie them in to work for a single employer on a 12-month visa that may also be renewed indefinitely so long as the employee returns to his or her home country for 30 days over the course of a 3-year period.

Boswell said the current H-2A guest worker program needs reform because all options have been exhausted for finding a stable, legal domestic workforce for agriculture.

“Wages keep going up, but people aren’t showing up,” she said. “And if they do, they’re not staying for the entire contract period because they realize it’s hard work.”

Agricultural employers have long complained that the current guest worker programs is too expensive, restrictive and bureaucratic. Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said he commends employers who use programs such as H-2A, which brought 4,000 guest workers into the state in 2012.

“They freed up 4,000 other workers to go to other farms,” Fazio said. “Without those 4,000 people, we would not have brought in the record apple harvest last year.”

The only mention of permanent legal status put forth by the coalition of interest groups applies to agricultural workers already in the country illegally. They want to establish a system that would require them to remain in agriculture for at least several more years after reforms are approved and then seek a path to permanent legal residency or citizenship.

Boswell said despite the momentum building nationally for immigration reform, there is a long road ahead for any related policy that will be proposed. However, she said strong support exists among both Democrats and Republicans for addressing agriculture’s interests.

“Are we going to get anything done this year? I am optimistic,” Boswell said.

• Mike Faulk can be reached at 509-577-7675 or mfaulk@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mike_Faulk.