Craig Regelbrugge (left), vice president for government relations and research, American Nursery and Landscape Association, talks with Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation after an Oct. 4 session at United Fresh's Washington Public Policy Conference.
Craig Regelbrugge (left), vice president for government relations and research, American Nursery and Landscape Association, talks with Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation after an Oct. 4 session at United Fresh's Washington Public Policy Conference.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The stakes are rising and the tempers are flaring in the immigration debate.

With the entire agricultural community seeking to avoid a mandatory E-Verify law without a suitable guest worker program for agriculture, Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said Farm Bureau’s economists have estimated the U.S. could lose from $5 billion to $9 billion in agricultural production and $3 billion in net farm income if growers are left without a sufficient legal workforce.

Schlegel spoke at the Oct. 4 session on the industry’s response to the threat of mandatory E-Verify legislation in the House of Representatives. The House Judiciary Committee approved mandatory E-Verify legislation but the outlook for when the bill will be considered by the full House — and the potential for a farm guest worker amendment to be attached to it — are uncertain.

Schlegel said some members of Congress are indifferent to the losses faced by growers.

“We are going to have to make a case that for agriculture to survive, at the end of the day we have to have a program that works for everybody.”

Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations and research for the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said that a reformed H-2A program alone cannot bridge the gap between the workforce that is not legally authorized and what is needed.

Regelbrugge said the goal is to get the best ag framework in the House to attach to the E-Verify bill, though the result may not provide any solution for existing illegal workers.

Still, he said Congressional inaction on mandatory E-verify legislation isn’t a solution either. “Waiting never leads to an environment where it is better,” he said.

“If nothing happens, we are going to see continued I-9 audits, we will see continued no match letters and the liability associated with them, and likely we will see another round of states joining the Arizona club (immigration enforcement) and with the devastation that happens when that unfolds,” he said. What’s more, he said any improvement in the economy will result in a worsening labor shortages for agriculture.

“We’ve got to figure out how to build a broader base of people who care about food,” Regelbrugge said.

Failing that, he said that America will lose strength as a producer. “The future will be off shore (production), it will be loss of on farm and off farm jobs, it will be lost economic value that is sustaining communities,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Steve Scaroni, with the Heber, Calif.-based Scaroni Family of Companies asked Schlegel if Farm Bureau was on board for a unified solution to the farm worker question. Scaroni said Farm Bureau lack of support for AgJobs hindered previous efforts to secure a legal farm workforce. He said some of Farm Bureau’s southeast U.S. interests have worked against the interests of California agriculture in the past.

Schlegel took strong exception to the characterization.

“I will publicly reject anyone who says Farm Bureau is the (one) responsible for this,” he said. “There is nothing today that will give agriculture a functional, workable ag program,” he said. “Don’t blame me or my organization.”

Regelbrugge said that there have been legitimate differences of opinion about what constituted a good enough solution in the past, but the looming threat of mandatory E-Verify adds urgency to the need for unity. “We are in this for a solution that can work for the masses,” he said. “We have to be careful that what we end up with can sustain our industry in a mandatory E-Verify (environment).”