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Will farm workers finally be legal in 2009?

With a Democratic president taking control and stronger Democratic majorities in Congress, does immigration reform for agricultural workers stand a chance this year? Next year?

The short answer, according to people who follow the issue, is “maybe.”

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association.

No one has a crystal ball, and no one can predict what Congress will do in the next year or two, but there is guarded optimism among supporters of “immigration reform” – those who seek some sort of legal status for America’s illegal immigrants (including farm workers).

There’s optimism, but a bit of worry, too. President Obama has expressed support for some form of immigration reform, but that issue, like many others, will probably be put on the back burner while he and Congress deal with the country’s economic problems.

“The best chance we have of getting this passed would be the first year,” said Mike Stoker, an adviser to the United Agribusiness League (UAL) who’s been following immigration reform efforts for 20 years. “We would have had a better chance without the economic crisis.”

Stoker said farm labor shortages have always been a problem, but the problem is getting worse and Congress can’t afford to ignore it any longer.

“Our nation’s farmers desperately need Congress to step up,” he said.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, is one of the “tortured souls” who’s been pushing for some sort of legalization for years, without much success. He said the four-year presidential election cycle tends to stymie controversial legislation. The new administration doesn’t want to tackle a divisive issue like immigration reform in its first year. In the second year, the focus is on winning the mid-term elections, so controversial topics are put on the back burner again. Before you know it, it’s time for another presidential election, and nobody wants to mention the words “immigration reform.”

“We’ve been in this place before,” Regelbrugge said. “This is part of the reason why Washington has utterly failed.”

Divisions

Regelbrugge might sound a bit cynical when discussing the history of immigration reform, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of something happening this year – though nothing will happen immediately.

“Immigration is not likely to be a first-100-days issue,” he said.

With a new president and Congress in place, several major Democratic constituencies will be clamoring for their voices to be heard on the immigration issue. Hispanic, labor and immigrant rights groups all will stake out positions. Some will seek an end to federal worksite raids and will try for some form of broad legalization. Some see unauthorized workers as a threat to American jobs and wages and will fight against any legalization attempts, Regelbrugge said.

“Even in Democratic groups, there are sharp divisions over what reform ought to look like,” he said.

Despite Democratic gains in the House of Representatives, many of the new Democrats are from conservative districts and don’t support immigration reform. Proponents will have to work hard to get anything through the House, UAL’s Stoker said.

Even the Republicans are hard to predict. There are pro-business and pro-ag groups within the GOP that would support sensible immigration reform, but the remaining anti-immigration hardliners might harden their attitudes even more, Stoker said.

Whatever the divisions, the bottom line for agriculture is this: Farms need a stable supply of experienced, legal workers, said Jason Resnick, assistant general counsel for Western Growers Association.

“At least 70 percent of farm workers are falsely documented,” Resnick said. “That’s not sustainable. That’s not where ag wants or needs to be.”

AgJOBS

Despite the potential opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, agriculture is one “piece” that might see some movement, Regelbrugge said.

Years ago, employers, workers and other agricultural interests sat down to fashion an agreement all of them could live with. That compromise, known as the AgJOBS bill, is still around, though it has yet to pass Congress.
If passed, AgJOBS would restructure the H-2A guest-worker program and put undocumented farm workers on a pathway to U.S. citizenship. The bill’s current sponsor is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Nancy Foster, USApple’s president, said there was a good chance Congress would pass some form of immigration reform for farmers this year – possibly AgJOBs, or maybe Feinstein’s Emergency Agricultural Relief Act (also called “AgJOBS lite”). Obama was an AgJOBS co-sponsor in the Senate, she said.

“Obama has been supportive of ag’s needs for labor.”

The economic crisis, however, will obviously take precedence when he becomes president, she said.

AgJOBS was one piece of the comprehensive immigration reform package that came close to passing Congress in 2007 but eventually fell apart. Such an all-or-nothing approach, which could have legalized millions of people, might have been too much for the country to swallow all at once, Regelbrugge said.

If AgJOBS is broken off from other immigration reform efforts and promoted on its own, it might have a better chance of getting through Congress and getting onto the president’s desk. The unique labor needs of specialty crop growers might help its cause, he said.

“For every farm worker, there are at least three jobs in the surrounding economy that exist because we’re producing (in the United States),” Regelbrugge said. “If farm jobs go to other countries, we lose other jobs, too.”
H-2A

Mike Nobles, president of H2A USA, a farm labor contractor that brings guest workers into the United States, said the H-2A program is alive and well and should continue to be so during Obama’s presidency. There are some groups out there that would like to raise the wages of H-2A workers – which could put some farmers out of business – but Nobles doesn’t think that will happen.

“H-2A continues to be a viable option for farmers who want legal workers,” he said. “We’ve always been able to fill orders.”

According to Western Growers’ Resnick, however, the federal guest-worker program has its limitations. H-2A is more than 50 years old and isn’t used by most production ag employers because they can’t afford the worker housing and other requirements that make H-2A an expensive and overly bureaucratic proposition. That’s why H-2A reform is needed in a bill like AgJOBS, he said.

American Farm Bureau Federation supports some form of legalization for agricultural workers and some sort of tenable guest-worker program, but it hasn’t endorsed AgJOBS, according to Paul Schlegel, AFBF’s director of public policy.

AFBF would like to see H-2A workers paid a market-based wage, but AgJOBs doesn’t provide for that. Also, there’s no provision for making sure workers get to the United States in a timely and efficient manner. When workers show up weeks late due to bureaucratic red tape – which has happened before – growers lose their crops, Schlegel said.

Originally posted Monday, Feb. 9, 2009

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