(July 15, 4:34 p.m.) The uncertainty of immigration reform and the growing certainty of immigration law enforcement continue to frustrate growers, labor lobbyists said in mid-July.

The one element of the farm worker equation that generally isn’t a worry this summer — availability of labor — could end up working against growers, said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations for the American Nursery and Landscaping Association, Washington, D.C.,

He said there are anecdotal reports that former agricultural laborers who have been working in the slumping home building market are returning to agriculture. Regelbrugge, however, worries that could lead to complacency among agricultural employers.

“The story isn’t about crops rotting in the fields all over the place,” he said. “The great challenge we face is that a lot of folks either have decided nothing can happen this year or they have decided they have enough labor today and they are sitting on their hands and staying quiet.”

Even so, growers are just one immigration raid away from disaster, he said.

Election-year politics

Attempts at labor reform continue on Capitol Hill, said Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C.

However, election-year politics will make it tough for those bills to find traction.

In particular, Schlegel noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is attempting to find legislation to which she can attach an immigration/agricultural labor bill, called the Emergency Agriculture Relief Act of 2008.

“We’re going to continue to do what we can to get it through,” he said.

Regelbrugge said Feinstein is involved with the issue to solve the problem and not for political show.

“She will make a judgment based on if the support is there, and my fear that many in labor-intensive agriculture have been sitting on their hands,” he said. “They will have to do something differently if Feinstein is to have the support she needs.”

Schlegel said Feinstein’s bill is similar to long-simmering AgJobs legislation, except it is limited to a five-year program and workers under the plan don’t have a path to citizenship. The program also tinkers with the way wages are set under the H-2A program.

H-2A changes

The Department of Labor is supposed to come out with revised rules on the H-2A program this year, easing some rules for growers, he said. Those proposed changes drew 12,000 comments, and many people — including farm worker advocates and agriculture employers — find fault with it, Regelbrugge said.

“There are lot of people who are currently H-2A users who looked at what the Bush administration proposed and have come to the conclusion that they would rather have the bad law they know than what the administration has proposed,” he said.

Another wild card is the Department of Homeland Security’s no-match regulations.

The no-match regulation would enact fines and criminal charges against companies for failing to verify the Social Security numbers of field workers and packing line employees. The law passed by Congress was supposed to go into effect in the fall of 2007, but a preliminary injunction, based on it not accounting for effects on small business, has stopped implementation.

Schlegel said the government is pursuing a couple of different approaches to secure approval to move forward.

While labor shortages don’t appear to be widespread in U.S. agriculture right now, Schlegel said growers are anxious about potential enforcement actions.

Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi and other states have passed laws requiring employers to use the E-verify system to check on Social Security numbers, Schlegel said.

Meanwhile, the comment period on federal regulation requiring government contractors to use the E-verify systems ends Aug. 11, he said.