(Feb. 27) FRESNO, Calif. — Time is running out for agriculture to lobby Congress for an immigration reform bill that includes a guest worker provision.

Agricultural leaders, grower-shippers and California legislators reiterated this message Feb. 24 at a meeting to discuss upcoming immigration reform legislature being drafted for consideration by Congress in March.

Tension has mounted recently over immigration in agriculture because the industry relies on a foreign workforce, said Tom Nassif, president of Irvine-based Western Growers.

“Realistically, a foreign workforce is going to harvest our crop,” Nassif said.

National security efforts complicate the problem, with checkpoints and border enforcement delaying immigrants who are trying to get into the U.S. legally and find work, he added.

“We need enforcement, but there should be a guest worker program,” Nassif said.

Agriculture Coalition on Immigration Reform has planned a March 15 event for agriculture interests to descend on Capitol Hill and make their needs heard in Washington, D.C.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the coalition and director of government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, Washington, D.C., said march organizers would welcome any help.

Regelbrugge said Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate’s judiciary committee, wants to take up immigration the first week of March and that Sen. Bill Frist wants a bill on the Senate floor by March 27.

“We only have a few weeks to do everything we can,” Regelbrugge said. “We need angry farmers. You all need to be fully deployed and be heard. The sense of urgency is real.”

Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who joined the meeting via conference call, said his staff is working on a bill and he hopes for legislation that divides economies into segments with one specific to agriculture.

“A bill that doesn’t prescribe specific focus on agriculture would harm (the industry),” he said.

He named other sectors such as construction and hospitality that could lure field workers away from agriculture, a sector whose differences he said require unique attention.

Craig added that AgJobs, another piece of immigration legislation, wouldn’t pass through Congress as is. He would like to offer AgJobs as an amendment to an immigration bill, he said, because it will only get through the House of Representatives if it’s part of something else.

Monte Lake, an attorney with McGuiness, Norris & Williams and agriculture lobbyist, said agriculture would be in the best position with a comprehensive bill coming out of both bodies of Congress.

The Senate would be more comfortable voting for a comprehensive bill, though some Senators want legislation that addresses border enforcement only, Lake added.

However, a guest worker program isn’t feasible if Congress passes comprehensive reform, Lake said.

“We couldn’t immediately move into a guest worker program and have it function,” he said.

The border is not set up to install an electronic identification program or biometrically process workers’ documents, he said.

Agriculture needs more representation in Washington, many leaders said.

“It’s sad that in U.S. agriculture, we have four people in D.C. lobbying for it,” said Jasper Hempel, executive vice president of Western Growers. “There hasn’t been a time when we need to raise more on-point advocacy. We’ve got to do everything we can before March 15.”

Agriculture has some of the best stories to tell, and they can be told through letters to members of Congress, said Luawanna Hallstrom, chief operating officer of Oceanside-based Harry Singh & Sons.

“When leaders can speak to millions of people with information and stories, that is the best grass-roots effort,” she said. “Write those letters. We have two weeks to get our stories together and make sure legislative leaders understand (our problem), because in two weeks, this will be on the Senate floor.”