The U.S. Senate's inaction on comprehensive immigration reform may have sent the politically charged issue to the emergency room. Yet immigration reform specific to U.S. agriculture still has a pulse and a chance for passage by year's end.
“I believe AgJobs has the opportunity over the next two to three months to be attached to another bill and move forward, either as part of an appropriations bill or the next farm bill,” said Manuel Cunha, Jr., president of the Fresno, Calif.-based Nisei Farmers League.
AgJobs is the agricultural labor language in the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform legislation, S. 1639.
“I feel we'll get something done if agriculture keeps working and pounding. This whole thing isn't over until Dec. 31,” stated Cunha.
He believes AgJobs is supported on both sides of the political aisle, and predicted President Bush would sign it — if part of an appropriations package.
“Agriculture has proven its case to the U.S. House and Senate that we must have labor. If not, we'll have food rotting in the fields. If the U.S. doesn't understand that, let's keep buying products from foreign countries so we can keep importing tainted products like dog food and toothpaste.”
The Nisei Farmers League has about 1,000 growers in California, Oregon, and Utah, representing commodities such as grapes, tree fruit, citrus, strawberries, vegetables, and nut crops. In addition, the group represents flower and Christmas tree producers, and farm labor contractors.
Cunha does not believe AgJobs can pass as a stand-alone bill due to the short timelines left in the current congressional year. “The Nisei Farmers League supported comprehensive immigration reform. The majority of Congress has absolutely failed to deal with this issue. If they don't deal with it in 2007, then they want businesses to take hits and penalties, and continue knowing that an enforcement sweep could be devastating to many businesses but especially agriculture.”
Cunha voiced his disappointment in the Senate's 53-46 procedural vote that killed the overall immigration reform bill, “Some senators got cold feet at the very end and saw the way the votes were going.”
He is significantly displeased with Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who “got ice under their toes. I'm disappointed in those two senators especially.”
Cunha feels AgJobs is not perfect, but does deal with reforming H2A, the current temporary foreign worker program. “The legislation excepts current trained, skilled workers that are very important to our industry — getting them into a blue card or Z visa program. After a period of years, they can apply for permanent residency or citizenship, but they go to the back of the line.”
Cunha said, “We probably should send them all back, but this country would fall apart tomorrow. Who's going to do the work?”
Also disappointed with the Senate vote is Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League (CGTFL) in Fresno. He called the Senate action a blow for comprehensive immigration reform.
As to the future of AgJobs, Bedwell said patience should be practiced first.
“Our heart says we have to give AgJobs our best shot. In the short-term, we need to understand that the emotion of the (comprehensive immigration reform) issue is still very high. Before we construct a strategy for AgJobs, we need to think through the process. We need to let the dust settle on the Senate action and then really work with our champions — Democratic Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who supported the comprehensive bill.”
“They will have a good sense in private discussions with their colleagues on the potential to move AgJobs. What we would like to see is a pilot program to show we can have meaningful immigration reform that works.
Bedwell has traveled to Washington D.C. three times this year to lobby for immigration reform. The CGTFL is on a steering committee of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform that has met with Senate and House members. Bedwell expects to make two more D.C. trips this year.
The league's membership includes about 300 growers, shippers, marketers, and associates, located from Northern California's Lake County, south to the Coachella Valley. The league is a watchdog on legislative, regulatory, and public policy matters.
“We know that agriculture has shown more than any other sector a need and reason for immigration reform. AgJobs has been discussed and logically has a good chance. But in the crazy world of immigration politics, we need to strategize on how best to communicate.”
The size and impact of the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill was so massive that some senators worried that the program could have administration difficulties, Bedwell said. He called AgJobs a smaller chunk of overall immigration reform that makes sense to those Senate members who expressed concerns over the larger comprehensive measure.
“The CGFTL supports AgJobs as a process that has been well-discussed in California and across the United States. It really is about meaningful reform of the H2A program to make it workable for agriculture. The current H2A program is not.”
AgJobs' key components include a foreign worker program and an adjustment of status for individuals that previously have worked in agriculture and have a commitment to agricultural work in the future, Bedwell said.
If AgJobs fails to gain congressional approval, the tightening labor supply in California agriculture will constrict even more.
“What we witnessed on a small scale last year, with the North Coast pear harvest having inadequate labor to harvest crops in a timely fashion, will spread to other areas of California and other states. One of my growers said after the Senate defeat, ‘I guess we'll all have to have fruit rotting in the fields before legislators really get it.’”
After the U.S. Senate's vote, Sen. Feinstein said the Senate's reasons for defeat are difficult to understand.
“The first one is people didn't believe that what was in the bill could fix our broken borders. And I think the second one was people look out and they see the failures of government — whether it's (Hurricane) Katrina or whether it's the ability to get enough passports out for people. And people say, how are they going to accomplish all this?”
Sen. Boxer said, “I decided to vote yes on cloture today (June 28) because I felt that if the policies in this bill were carried out properly, the result would be a strengthening of our border security, the rescue of our agriculture industry, and the acknowledgment that hard-working, undocumented immigrants should have a path to legality if they follow the tough rules we have set out.”
Arizona Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain voted yes on the comprehensive immigration reform bill.