(March 3, 12:21 p.m.) Democratic Presidential frontrunner Sen. Barack Obama has asked the White House to withdraw proposed changes to the H-2A program or, failing that, significantly extend the rulemaking comment period.

That comment period is set to expire March 31.

In a letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Obama, D-Ill., said that comprehensive immigration reform — namely, AgJobs legislation — should be the top priority rather than through changes to the H-2A program.

“Congress must change immigration law to ensure that those who harvest our fruits and vegetables are here legally,” Obama wrote in a letter to Chao Feb. 20. “Imposing new costs on foreign farm workers and lowering their wages is an inadequate solution and if not done thoughtfully could do more harm than good.”

NOT JUSTIFIED

According to Obama, farm worker advocates say some of the H-2A reforms the administration has proposed wouldn’t be positive for Americans or for guest workers. Particularly, Obama said that one of the proposed reforms would remove the requirement that employers seek to recruit workers across several regions in the U.S. before pursuing foreign labor.

“This requirement is removed by the proposed regulations but retained in AgJobs,” he said in the letter.

Obama also said that there is little justification for other proposed reforms, including lowering of wage rates, weakening of housing requirements and other changes proposed by the administration.

“I urge the administration to work to pass the (AgJobs) legislation,” Obama concluded in his letter.

TRADE-OFFS

The proposed reforms wouldn’t end interstate recruiting of agricultural labor, said Craig Regelbrugge, senior director of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscape Association, Washington, D.C., and spokesman for the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

“There are some changes in the recruiting requirements, but in some respects, there are additional requirements in the area of employment as a trade off for lessening of requirements in long-distance recruiting,” he said.

For example, Regelbrugge noted that the H-2A program has long required agricultural employers from throughout the U.S. to advertise in the lower Rio Grande Valley. However, because several agricultural employers in south Texas are themselves using the H-2A program because they can’t find a ready local labor supply, it makes no sense to require employers in Ohio, for example, to advertise for workers in south Texas when the growers in south Texas can’t find enough workers themselves.

While Obama’s suggestion to drop reforms to the H-2A program won’t find agreement in the industry, Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said Obama has clearly been listening to agriculture when it comes to the AgJobs legislation.

Regelbrugge said agriculture needs a legislative solution to immigration and labor issues. “(The H-2A reforms) won’t solve the problem, and some of the process improvements will be needed if AgJobs passes or not,” he said.

FARM BUREAU

Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said the administration might consider extending the comment period one or two weeks but might not want to double the comment period by another 45 days,

Schlegel said the Farm Bureau supports some aspects of the administration’s proposed changes to H-2A but it has questions about other proposed changes, including higher fees for employers and a new wage formula for guest workers.

He noted that some farm worker advocates would like to see proposed reforms to the H-2A program — and indeed, the program itself — “go away” and might seek to delay the rulemaking until the end of the Bush administration.

Importantly, however, Schlegel said that the last three remaining viable presidential candidates —Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Obama; and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — all support comprehensive immigration reform.

That reality could change the political dynamics of the immigration debate and could prompt Congress to take up AgJobs legislations this year, he said.

FRONT-BURNER ATTENTION

Given the fact that immigration reform is supported by the leading three presidential candidates, Guenther said it will help keep the issue on the front burner headed into the next Administration.

“Immigration is in the top three to five items that need to be addressed one way or another,” Guenther said.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, Texas, noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had indicated she would work to bring AgJobs to the floor this year. Democrat leaders in the Senate have indicated they would support her with the effort, McClung said.