SAN DIEGO — Industry leaders say the toughest challenge for immigration and farm labor reform this year may be matching up legislation that passes the Senate with a compatible bill in the House.
In a May 15 session called “The Critical Need for Immigration Reform,” panelists assessed current efforts at comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the Senate and the work on the issue that will soon start in the House.
The agriculture workforce provisions of the Senate version of the immigration legislation is the product of the efforts of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition and other farm worker advocates, said Barry Bedwell, chairman of the United Fresh Produce Association government relations council and president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League,
“We’re trying to get as close as possible the wording and the agreement in Senate Bill 744 in the House of Representatives,” he said. “That cohesiveness and cooperation is paramount.”
The House bill must have some similar features to the Senate to go to conference for a successful conclusion, Bedwell said.
There are 232 Republicans in the House, and 142 come from districts with less than 10% Latinos.
“It is going to be so important for the Republican leadership to educating their members on why this makes sense, whether you are in agriculture or not,” Bedwell said.
The Senate must pass immigration reform with a comfortable margin — perhaps more than 70 votes in favor — to send a proper message to the House. Bedwell said letters have been sent to all California representatives in the House asking they approve a bill similar to the Senate legislation.
Bedwell acknowledged Western Growers president Tom Nassif, United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez and Monte Lake, partner at CJ Lake LLC for working with legislators on farm labor issues.
The base wage rate and the cap to the agricultural guest worker program in the Senate have drawn some objections, but Bedwell said those provisions represented good-faith negotiations.
“We have to get away from why it won’t work to why it has to work,” he said.
Chalmers Carr, president of Titan Farms, Ridge Spring, S.C., said he believes the House needs to pass an immigration bill, but he said the Senate version could be improved.
“If we don’t get a bill in the House, we can’t go to conference committee and we cannot get an end game,” he said.
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said immigration reform is necessary to expand consumption through salad bars in schools and other initiatives.
Monte Lake, partner at CJ Lake LLC, Washington, D.C., said growers will face mandatory E-verify in the future. While the Senate legislation doesn’t give growers everything thing they want, it is the best package agriculture can negotiate and get through Congress.