A United Farm Workers of America official urged Congress Tuesday to adopt strong labor protections as part of any new immigration reform package.

The Keene-based labor union's national vice president, Giev Kashkooli, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security that most farmworkers earn low wages and that their housing tends to be "poor and overcrowded."

"Federal and state laws exclude farm workers from many labor protections other workers enjoy, such as the right to join a union without being fired for it, overtime pay, many of the OSHA safety standards, and even workers' compensation in some states," Kashkooli said, according to written statements provided by the UFW.

"We ask this subcommittee to support a new, comprehensive immigration process that grants current farm workers and their members a reasonable and prompt opportunity to earn legal immigration status and citizenship, and ensures that future workers are brought here in a manner that elevates farm work."

Industry officials also testified in support of immigration reform, with one saying the nation's agriculture worker program is "broken beyond repair." That official, Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif, urged a new approach that would resemble the existing labor market.

"A workable program would also provide farm workers with the same protections as U.S. workers with respect to all employment related laws and employment taxes," he said, according to a Western Growers news release. "Thus there would be no reason for an employer to prefer a temporary foreign worker over a U.S. worker."

Nassif recommended that any immigration overhaul include incentives for workers to return to their home country after the end of their visa or completion of their work obligations. He further suggested linking workers' visas with a national employment verification system, "guaranteeing that someone with a visa to work in agriculture would not be able to gain legal employment in another sector."

"It is also imperative for this program to address not only the need for future employees but also the need to retain our experienced employees, the people who are already here," he said.