With expectations that comprehensive immigration reform legislation is still on track for introduction in the Senate sometime in April, agriculture labor advocates were scrambling to find an acceptable number to limit participants in a new agricultural guest worker program.

Both Republicans and Democrats have informed ag labor advocates that the legislation will cap numbers for the agriculture guest worker program, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president for Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

“We say we would prefer there would not be a cap, but if there is a cap, it needs to be high enough and flexible enough to accommodate agriculture,” Gasperini said April 3.

“The cap is a serious problem for agriculture,” said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the Vass-based North Carolina Growers Association. Wicker said April 4 he had heard a cap number of 150,000 was recently put forward for the agriculture guest worker program. That level, he said, was a nonstarter.

“If you believe there are 1.25 million farm workers, then it has got to be a big number,” he said.

Hitting a cap limit on guest workers could be devastating to growers who put faith in the government to provide a legal workforce, he said.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition is in discussions with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to hammer out key provisions on farm labor, said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C.

Those senators, she said, have been assigned the task of putting together the ag labor piece of the broader comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate.

Boswell said representatives of the United Farm Workers have also been a part of the discussion.

“There has been progress made regarding a framework but there are still details being worked out,” she said April 3.

In particular, Boswell said wages, a cap for the guest workers program and labor standards are still being discussed.

While not discussing negotiations, she said the cap issue is particularly important for agriculture, she said.

“It is hard to predict what our need will be as far as a cap, so we have a strong hesitancy to put any number in a statute without knowing what our needs will be,” she said.

Although lawmakers are pushing for introduction of the immigration reform legislation in April, Wicker said the package was so complex that it remains an uphill battle.

“The good news is that agriculture is together and we all know this is our best chance in the near term or long term to get something done,” he said.