Greg Johnson, editor
Greg Johnson, editor

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The produce industry narrowed its key talking points to two for this year’s lobbying efforts as part of the Sept. 8-10 Washington Conference, the annual public policy event hosted by the United Fresh Produce Association.

One issue was dead-on.

The industry vowed to tell Congress to protect the fruit and vegetable provisions in the healthier school meals regulations, despite some lawmakers and school districts claiming the rules are too expensive.

The produce industry couldn’t be more together on this issue, and it has bipartisan support as it should. Arguing against including fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet is a major loser politically.

One speaker at the conference, Jamie Barnett, retired Navy officer and spokesman for Mission: Readiness, said 70% of Americans age 17-24 are not eligible to serve in the military, and the top reason is obesity.

I think all conference attendees can agree the nutrition angle was successful.

The other key issue was immigration, and it’s more clear to me each time the industry addresses the topic, its approach is wrong.

It’s true that the produce industry has a problem with its workforce. It’s difficult to attract workers for a tough job that doesn’t pay well.

The fact that an estimated 50% of workers are in the U.S. illegally is a problem that needs to be addressed.

But the produce industry keeps pushing the solution as Senate bill 744, which was the one passed in the Senate last year by Democrats and 14 Republicans.

This bill won’t even be brought up in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives this year, in large part because of provisions for a path to citizenship, referred to as amnesty by critics.

The industry should have noticed how immigration politics have gone this year and seen that the Senate bill will go nowhere.

Republicans think they have a chance to gain a majority in the Senate in the November election, and every GOP candidate running this fall claims to be against amnesty.

Even President Obama said he would delay any executive action on immigration until after the election because he could see it was becoming a political loser.

I went on a lobbying visit with a group of industry members from Florida to U.S. Rep. John Mica’s office.

He’s a well-respected 11-term Republican congressman from the 7th district, which is just north of Orlando.

He said he’s supportive of agriculture, but when the group brought up immigration, Mica was concise.

“I’m not going to vote for amnesty,” he said.

He would support guest worker legislation, but not any bill that has a pathway to citizenship and allows lawbreakers to jump to the front of the line.

I suspect many industry members who met with Republican members of Congress heard the same thing.

In fact, United Fresh would have made the conference more interesting and effective if it invited a Republican Congress member or staff who opposes the Senate bill, but a Sept. 9 immigration workshop had only speakers supporting the bill.

Felicia Escobar, special assistant to the president for immigration policy, was in full spin mode, claiming that 10 years of polling show Americans want immigration reform passed.

This is simply not true.

Most polls depend on how the question is asked, but there is certainly no overwhelming support for reform that includes amnesty.

For instance, a mid-September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 53% of Americans support giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, while 45% oppose, down from 64% for and 35% against in April.

The poll also found that 35% of Americans say Republicans are better equipped to address immigration, while 27% say Democrats. December numbers showed Americans favored Democrats 31% to 26% for Republicans.

Many politicians, including the president, and even the conference talking points, refer to Congress needing “to do its job” and pass immigration reform.

Members of the House represent the people of their districts, and if their voters don’t want them to support the Senate immigration bill, they won’t do it.

That’s what’s happening as the anti-amnesty position gains traction.

I don’t understand why the produce industry has hitched its effort to a plan that includes a path to citizenship. The industry needs workers however it can get them, and it’s taking a more difficult path than is necessary.

Leaders need to make a bigger priority of engaging House Republicans and asking, “What do you propose to improve the labor situation?”

The strategy of pushing the Senate solution is not working. It’s looking further from happening, not closer.

gjohnson@thepacker.com

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