By Tom Karst, The Packer
WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senate leaders and the White House reached a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform May 17, but the proposed overhaul still must pass the Senate and the House and be signed by President Bush before it becomes law.
"It's a terrific first step," said Paul Simonds, communications manager for Newport Beach, Calif.-based Western Growers. "It's encouraging, but we know there's still a lot of work to be done."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on his Web site that the bill needs to be improved as it moves through the legislative process and expressed concerns about the structure of the temporary worker program.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on her Web site that the proposal includes the provisions of the AgJobs bill to secure a legal agricultural workforce. If the comprehensive bill falters, backers of AgJobs said they would try to bring wit forward as stand alone legislation.
The bipartisan agreement came a day after a "fly in" of about 160 specialty crop leaders designed to sway deliberations on immigration reform.
"We commend the Senate Republican and Democratic leaders for reaching what appears to be a bipartisan agreement that includes AgJobs," said Autumn Veazey, director of legislative affairs for the United Fresh Produce Association. "We're cautiously optimistic until we see the language."
The Associated Press reported that AgJobs is part of the agreement, and agriculture workers will be subject to dif-ferent requirements than those applied to other guest worker programs.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., told a group of industry lobbyists May 16 that there are attempts by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to tweak longstanding AgJobs legislation to alter the "earned legalization" process for undocumented agricultural workers already in the U.S.
AgJobs creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers if they continue to work in agriculture for a specified time. Proposed changes by Chambliss would allow currently undocumented workers to stay if they come forward and are identified. He would, however, require them to return to their home country before being considered for U.S. citizenship.
At a May 15 news conference, Feinstein expressed a desire to leave AgJobs as is.
"I feel very strongly that this bill, negotiated over a 10-year period between farm organizations and farmworker groups, should go forward as written, and I am very hopeful that it will," she said.
Feinstein noted that 880 organizations support AgJobs. She said California - with 450,000 agricultural jobs - needs a secure and legal workforce to plant, prune and harvest.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, wasn't as emphatic as Feinstein at the conference, but he left no doubt about the urgency of reform.
"If we don't get this right, American agriculture will take their production elsewhere," he said.
Maureen Marshall, vice president of Torrey Farms, Inc., Elba, N.Y., agreed.
"It's either import our food or import our labor," she said.
Veazey said United Fresh hopes the issue will be resolved before the August recess.
"If something is not done in that window you get into the start of the presidential campaign, and people will be focused on that," she said. "It will be much harder to pass something at that point."