'Window of Opportunity' for Immigration Relief

November 12, 2009 06:00 PM
By Catherine Merlo

"No issue is as fundamental to our survival” as immigration reform—and 2010 poses "a window of opportunity" for passing the AgJOBS bill, Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR), told some 300 attendees Wednesday at the Elite Producer Business Conference in Las Vegas.

Although the healthcare debate and economic concerns are blocking the road to AgJOBS' consideration, Regelbrugge believes the first quarter of 2010 could see serious effort for the proposed legislation. The Senate is most likely to consider the bill first.

The AgJOBS bill has strong bipartisan support, which positions it uniquely, he said. 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 added.

AgJOBS would provide an effective, legal means for foreign laborers to work in the agriculture industry. The proposed legislation offers a two-part solution to immigration reform, Regelbrugge said.  It offers a long-term resolution with sweeping guest-worker, or H-2A, reforms. It also provides a "bridge” that offers experienced farm workers an opportunity to earn legal status in the U.S.

Regelbrugge said AgJOBS does not guarantee citizenship for immigrants, but neither does it prohibit a foreign worker from someday achieving U.S. citizenship.

And, "AgJOBS takes better care of dairy than any other industry because it offers a year-round worker provision,” Regelbrugge told the group of mostly dairy producers. "This is worth fighting for.”

Originally introduced in 2003, AgJOBS has been 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, said Regelbrugge, who is also vice president for government relations and research with the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

Unauthorized immigrant labor has risen from an estimated 7% of farm workers in 1989 to an estimated 75% today, he noted. Immigrant labor also makes up half of the U.S. dairy industry's workforce.

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,” Regelbrugge said.

He urged 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 representative asking them to pass AgJOBS.

"Mobilize support in your own world,” Regelbrugge said. Include family, workers, friends and business colleagues. Let civic groups such as the local Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce know the value and importance of immigrant workers to your business and the economy, he added.

ACIR is a coalition of more than 300 groups from labor-intensive farming sectors, including the fruit, vegetable, dairy and livestock, nursery and greenhouse industries. It was formed in 2001 to pursue immigration reform. Learn more at http://www.saveusfarms.org/.

Dairy Today sponsors the annual Elite Producers Business Conference.

 Catherine Merlo is Western editor for Dairy Today. You can reach her at cmerlo@farmjournal.com.

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