Greg Johnson,
Greg Johnson, Editor

SAN DIEGO — Don’t get your hopes up for comprehensive immigration reform, this year or in the near future.

First, let’s commend industry leaders, both from associations and volunteer leaders, for the hundreds of hours of work they’ve put in on immigration reform.

It’s a vital issue in agriculture, and particularly the produce industry, so it’s an issue for which it’s worth finding solutions.

The work that the Agricultural Workforce Coalition and farm worker representatives have done has been important and shows cooperation.

What follows is not a criticism of what they’ve done or how they’ve gone about it.

The fresh produce industry generally agrees growers rely on immigrant labor — many times undocumented — and it’s not a good long-term strategy. But there are just too many factors standing in the way of meaningful reform right now.

At a May 15 immigration workshop at United Fresh 2013, a few of these leaders gave us an update on where immigration reform sits in Congress.

In mid-May, the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on Senate bill 744, called the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” As we said in a Packer editorial a month ago, the Senate bill is only the first of many steps that will become harder.

At the workshop, speakers identified that the biggest obstacle for immigration and farm labor reform this year will likely be matching up legislation that passes the Senate with a similar bill in the House.

Barry Bedwell, chairman of the United Fresh government relations council and president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said the coalition is pushing the wording and agreements from the Senate bill to members of the House of Representatives.

That’s a good goal, but there’s an obvious problem. Many Republican House members oppose any immigration bill that hints at amnesty for illegal immigrants, and it’s reasonable to assume that’s the way their constituents feel (national polling is generally mixed on immigration and largely influenced by the way the questions are asked).

Bedwell conceded that amnesty is a flashpoint.

He said the industry needs to appeal to House reps who oppose reform by telling them that politics is more important than representing their constituents. Not to pick on Bedwell, but that’s an arguable point.

Even so, that’s an argument President Obama made to many moderate Democratic reps during the health care reform bill debate, which passed in 2009 on party lines, and contributed to the Republicans retaking the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections.

I doubt there are many Republican reps who are willing to risk their House seat by pushing immigration reform against their voters’ wishes.

Another argument several panelists made is that the Senate must pass immigration reform with a comfortable margin, such as more than 70 votes in favor, to send a strong message to the House.

United Fresh president Tom Stenzel said United Fresh set up a hotline on the expo floor May 15-16 for attendees to punch in their zip codes and send a message to their senators saying they support the immigration reform bill. Stenzel said public comments have been about 10-to-1 against the bill, so senators need to hear from their supporters.

Considering the tone in Washington the past few years, I highly doubt anything the Senate does will send an influential message to the House, considering it’s led by the other political party.

Another panelist, Chalmers Carr, president of Titan Farms, Ridge Spring, S.C., differed some from the coalition goal of pushing the Senate bill in the House. He said he believes the House needs to pass an immigration bill of any kind — not necessarily the Senate version — which 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.

Carr called this a piecemeal approach compared to a preferred comprehensive approach, but it may be the only way for agriculture to get anything passed on immigration this year.

It’s possible the House could pass a guest worker program with no path to citizenship, or other reforms, which would help agriculture in the short term.

But there’s another solution.

On the expo floor, I got the rundown on a new film wrapping machine from Ramsay Highlander Inc., Gonzales, Calif.

President and chief executive officer Frank Maconachy said it’s primarily for lettuce, and a typical configuration would pack more lettuce in fields than a current crew with field workers, save $600,000 a year in labor and pay for itself in savings in just over a year.

“I’m baffled as to why this doesn’t sell better,” he said.

I asked him if he appealed to growers on labor grounds, and he said as a member of Western Growers, he knows the immigration problems, and that machines like this could help solve them.

But he said he hasn’t gotten much demand on that appeal.

I predict demand for such products will pick up after another immigration reform discussion flames out this year.

Growers are too smart at business to let labor problems keep good product from getting to market, one way or another.

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