Capital trip confirms ag must speak up on immigration

Issue Date: June 6, 2007
Ching Lee

The word from Capitol Hill was clear: Legislators need to hear from those in agriculture regarding their interests in the current immigration reform debate to counter the flood of anti-immigration sentiments coming from other vocal constituents.

That's the message managers from 25 county Farm Bureaus took home with them after a trip to Washington, D.C., where they met with key congressional members and their staff about the need for a viable guest-worker program and other issues affecting California agriculture.

The delegation was joined by California Farm Bureau Federation officers and staff and represented a cross-section of the state's diverse agricultural sector from the far-north corners of Del Norte County to the deserts of Imperial County.

The two main issues they were hoping to influence were immigration reform and the 2007 Farm Bill, although with the immigration debate in full force in the Senate, much of the focus was on securing a guest-worker program that would provide agriculture a reliable work force.

Each county Farm Bureau manager brought stories from their own regions to House members while the Senate was beginning two weeks of debate on their version of the comprehensive immigration reform bill before the Memorial Day recess. The House is expected to create its own bill in the coming weeks. If the Senate and House bills pass, then the two bills will go to a joint conference committee to be reconciled before final approval.

But many obstacles lie ahead in getting a final bill to President Bush. While most congressional members that the Farm Bureau delegation visited said they understood the urgency and unique problems that agriculture faces, some were unwilling to support a bill that they say their constituents view as giving amnesty to illegal immigrants.

"All the offices talked about the anti-immigration e-mails, faxes and phone calls they were getting, which was rather disheartening," said Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, executive director of Merced County Farm Bureau. "They're not hearing from those that actually want to have some sort of solution made."

The Farm Bureau delegation agreed that California farmers and ranchers need to speak up on the immigration issue and tell their congressional leaders that they need a viable guest-worker program that would provide a stable work force for agriculture.

"Our representatives need some backing," said Bob Perkins, executive director of Monterey County Farm Bureau. "We need calls from our membership telling them about our interest in the immigration reform. They need to hear from our side of the issue."

The county managers made contacts with more than two dozen legislators that represented rural and urban interests. They also participated in group meetings with congressional members Sam Farr, Anna Eshoo, Devin Nunes and Dennis Cardoza.

Steve Pastor, executive director of Riverside County Farm Bureau, said the legislators he spoke with appear to be on the fence with their support of the proposed AgJOBS program, which would legalize immigrants who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days over the previous two years.

"They're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard spot at this point, and they don't know which way to go," he said. "They do support agriculture and they know the importance of having a work force to pick the crops, but whoever is making the most noise will get the prize on this one."

In visits with urban legislators such as Rep. Gary Miller, Pastor said his group did not miss the opportunity to educate Miller's staff about the agriculture and ag-related industries that exist in the district the Republican congressman represents.

"His assistant said, 'I don't know why you're here because we don't have any ag in our district,' and we corrected him right then and there saying, 'You may not have anything like Riverside or Imperial counties as far as vast farmlands, but you do have processing facilities, wholesale nurseries, flower growers, strawberry growers and all the related businesses like trucking companies, box makers and that sort of thing,'" he said. "So a light went on."

He added that while it is important to continue to make connections with legislators who have a big ag constituency, "perhaps instead of preaching to the choir, we need to pound on our urban friends a little harder."

Teri Bontrager, executive director of Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau, said she appreciated Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon's honesty when he said he would not support a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for those who came to the country illegally. And while the current immigration proposal being debated in the Senate would require undocumented workers to earn their legalization through a series of penalties, McKeon said there is still the public perception that they are getting amnesty.

"He said I understand what you're saying and I know where you're coming from," Bontrager said of her group's meeting with McKeon, "but I have to vote the way my constituency wants me to vote."

Even legislators such as Republican Rep. Wally Herger, whose district has a strong agricultural base, have problems with the current Senate comprehensive immigration reform package, said Melodie Johnson, executive director of Colusa County Farm Bureau.

Others such as Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter told the Farm Bureau delegation he will not go near AgJOBS until there is a substantial increase in border security, said Imperial County Executive Director Nicole Rothfleisch.

Tricia Stever, executive director of Tulare County Farm Bureau, said she found fascinating the group meeting with Republican Rep. Devin Nunes in which he talked about the polling results done in his district—which includes Fresno and Tulare counties—that showed strong opposition against amnesty or any type of immigration reform program that would forgive the actions of illegal immigrants.

"Yet Devin has been a good supporter of AgJOBS and he's supportive of immigration reform and he knows agriculture needs that work force, but he represents a very Republican, conservative district," Stever said. "That's a difficult fine line for Devin to have to walk on, and the Farm Bureau is very supportive of Devin for being able to walk that fine line."

The Farm Bureau delegation also brought their concerns about other ag issues to top officials from federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior.

In a meeting with Cindy Smith, associate administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Farm Bureau delegates talked about their concerns with agricultural inspections for foreign pests and diseases at U.S. borders. Such functions had been the exclusive responsibility of APHIS until 2003, when they were merged into the new Department of Homeland Security. The Farm Bureau would like inspection duties to return to APHIS.

To illustrate the ag community's concern regarding this issue, Rothfleisch told Smith her experience at the San Diego airport that week. She said she met on the plane two men who told her they brought lemons picked from a friend's back yard through airport security without being questioned.

"If it is this easy to transport citrus from the West to the East Coast, it must be just as easy coming the other direction," she said. "Being from Imperial, which is on the border of Mexico and Arizona, we are particularly concerned about the Department of Homeland Security checking for thugs and drugs but not for bugs."

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.