Ag Worker Bill Revived After Defeat of Immigration Reform

Published on December 27th, 2007

By Laura Layden, Naples Daily News
July 21, 2007

Though a comprehensive immigration bill has failed in Congress, supporters aren’t giving up on legislation that could legalize more than a million farmworkers in the United States.

The legislation, known as AgJobs, was included in the sweeping reform bill that suffered a crushing defeat last month.

Backers are searching for ways to breathe new life into the agricultural program they say is needed to deal with worker shortages that have left crops unpicked and rotting in fields.

For more than seven years, supporters have pushed AgJobs, short for the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, as a way to provide a more stable, secure and safe work force for the U.S. agriculture industry. It would overhaul the H-2A guest worker program and give experienced farmworkers the chance to become legal residents in this country.

Under the program, undocumented workers could earn legal status if they show they’ve worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days during the past two years. It would be capped at 1.5 million workers.

There has been talk of attaching AgJobs to the 2007 Farm Bill, which sets the nation’s agriculture policy.

“That is one of the options that is being looked at. It certainly is not the only one — and I’m not sure I would characterize it as the prime option,” said Mike Carlton, director of research and education for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, one of the largest trade groups representing the state’s growers.

The five-year Farm Bill is still under debate in committee and has a long way to go before reaching the president’s desk.

AgJobs might get hitched to another bill, or it could resurface as its own bill.

“We believe there is a need to act now and we’re going to look for vehicles to move the AgJobs on, or to move it as a stand-alone bill,” said Scott Gerber, communications director for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the main sponsors of AgJobs. “I think we are going to do all that we can to see that it passes.”

The Farm Bill, he said, is a “possible vehicle” to get AgJobs moving again.

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, another champion of AgJobs, is looking for ways to revive it, too.

“Everyone agrees there is a problem and so far Congress has failed to enact a solution at all. The most likely scenario is coupling AgJobs with some more border security measures to make it palatable to enough senators,” said Dan Whiting, Craig’s spokesman.

Most people seem to agree that agriculture has the biggest emergency when it comes to workers, he said. Tighter borders and a crackdown on illegal immigrants have made it tougher for growers across the country to find enough workers to pick their crops this season.

“The bottom line is there won’t be anything we can do for this (2007-08) growing season,’’ Whiting said. “But we still need to try to do something this year.”

In 2006, one third of Florida’s orange crop wasn’t picked due to labor shortages. This year, the situation hasn’t been as critical because the crop is much smaller. But the crop is expected to bounce back from hurricane damage and bouts of disease.

“There is a concern about a much tighter labor supply overall,” said Carlton, with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“Fortunately, there are a number of folks in Congress that recognize the situation agriculture is in and recognize we’ve got to fix the problem. Whether or not there are enough of those people to do something that’s right is still debatable. We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

He hoped to see the broader immigration reform bill pass.

“It was exceedingly disappointing,” he said. “It is a problem that doesn’t have a simple solution. But it is a problem that requires a solution.”

After the immigration bill was defeated, Feinstein said in a statement that she would work with Craig to try to ensure AgJobs moved ahead before any other immigration-related legislation.

“I’m a supporter of the DREAM Act, and I believe that it should be approved so that young men and women, who came to the United States as children, can get an education or serve in the military.

“And I also know that there must be an increase to the number of H1-B visas. This is critical for ensuring that the high-tech industry in the United States remains strong and competitive. But agriculture faces a major crisis. The only way farmers and growers can harvest their crops today is with undocumented workers,’’ she said.

She estimates that in California alone, there are nearly a million undocumented workers harvesting crops, with as much as 90 percent of the farm labor payroll going to these workers.

In recent years, California growers have reported that their harvesting crews were down by as much as 20 percent.

AgJobs has widespread support from agricultural groups, farmworker advocates and religious organizations across the country.

But it has its share of opponents, who argue it will only reward workers who have broken the law and encourage more illegal workers to come to the United States.

“This amounts to a mini amnesty that is not so mini,” said Rick Oltman, with Californians for Population Stabilization.

He’s concerned about fraud, the kind of fraud seen after the Special Agricultural Worker program passed in 1986.

“There were a lot of loopholes. People who worked in agriculture picking vegetables for three days would qualify,” he said.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said two of the bombers of the World Trade Center in 1993 came into this country under the Special Agricultural Worker program.

They were working as taxi cab drivers in New York, he said.

Mehlman expects a tough fight ahead.

“The advocates clearly are not giving up very easily,” he said. “You can certainly expect to see them break up the amnesty into little bite-size pieces and try to sneak it through.”

Other opponents of AgJobs include NumbersUSA, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that describes itself as an “immigration-reduction organization.”

“What we would actually like to see is a reworking of the H-2A program, which currently allows for limited agricultural workers in the United States. There are actually a couple of bills in Congress that would amend the H-2A program, to make it easier for farmers to use,” said Caroline Espinosa, spokeswoman for the group.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., sponsored a bill to reform “the impractical aspects” of the H-2A program that have discouraged farmers from using it.

His bill would expand the eligible jobs and get rid of a requirement to provide free housing to the workers. There no longer would be a cap on the number of H-2A visas.

Growers argue the current H-2A program is too cumbersome and inefficient. Without changes to the program, it would be difficult for growers to get most of their workers this way, said Carlton, with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“Right now about 2 to 3 percent of the work force comes in under the guest worker program and it’s very difficult for the government agencies to keep up with that number of people, with the processing of requests,” he said. “It would be impossible if we were to try to move from 3 percent to 90 percent.”

Farmworker Justice, based in Washington, D.C., is strategizing with other advocacy and grower groups on ways to get AgJobs passed this year.

The legislation will ensure that farmworkers are “treated fairly,” executive director Bruce Goldstein said.

Because most farmworkers are illegal, they can become targets for abuse. Some are overworked, underpaid and forced to live in rundown housing.

“We feel there is a reasonable chance that Congress would pass AgJobs this year,” Goldstein said. “You don’t succeed if you don’t try. We intend to try.”

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