By Catherine Merlo
In the workplace world of immigrant labor, high-profile raids are out, for now. I-9 audits are in. Employers, rather than employees, are the primary worksite targets of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And advocates for AgJOBS are pushing hard to pass the guest-worker reform bill this year.
"No issue is as fundamental to the survival” of American agriculture as immigration reform, says Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations with the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR).
2010 could offer a window of opportunity for passing AgJOBS, he adds.
"The bill would most likely be taken up as part of a broader immigration effort, or could be part of an incremental step toward comprehensive immigration reform,” Regelbrugge says.
Although the healthcare debate and economic concerns prevented AgJOBS from being considered in 2009, Regelbrugge believes the coming weeks could see serious effort for the proposed legislation. The Senate is most likely to consider immigration first.
The AgJOBS bill has strong bipartisan support, which positions it uniquely, he says. It has solid champions in Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and U.S. Representatives Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.). The bill has the support of key leaders in Congress and the Obama Administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "And I think USDA Secretary Vilsack will be with us,” Regelbrugge adds.
AgJOBS would provide an effective, legal means for foreign laborers to work in the agriculture industry, says Regelbrugge. The proposed legislation offers a two-part solution: 1) a long-term resolution with sweeping guest-worker, or H-2A, reforms; and 2) a "bridge” that offers experienced farm workers an opportunity to earn legal status in the U.S.
AgJOBS does not guarantee citizenship for immigrants nor does it prohibit a foreign worker from someday achieving U.S. citizenship.
"AgJOBS takes better care of dairy than any other industry because it offers a year-round worker provision,” Regelbrugge says. "This is worth fighting for.”
Originally brought up in 2003, AgJOBS was reintroduced in the current House of Representatives as H.R. 2414, with 57 co-sponsors. In the Senate, it's known as S. 1038, with 21 co-sponsors.
The bill is urgently needed, since agriculture faces more daunting labor force demographics and growing enforcement threats, says Regelbrugge.
Immigration enforcement increasingly is targeting employers rather than workers, with recent activities including a record number of I-9 audits. "We're in extremely dangerous waters for employers right now,” he says.
Employers are required to complete and retain I-9 forms for each employee. I-9s must show each employee's identity and work eligibility.
"It's not like we've been hiding” from I-9 or other immigrant labor requirements, Reglebrugge says. "We've been begging Congress for a solution for almost 15 years.”
Regelbrugge urges producers to support ACIR's national efforts to pass the AgJOBS bill. In addition to financial and grassroots support, producers should send a letter to their congressional representatives asking them to pass AgJOBS.
"Mobilize support in your own world,” Regelbrugge says.