Farmers determined despite immigration setback


Issue Date: June 13, 2007
Ching Lee

Temporary workers are needed to fill the 450,000 jobs in California agriculture each year.

California farmers and ranchers reacted with disappointment and frustration after a comprehensive immigration reform measure suffered a setback in the U.S. Senate last week.

Lawmakers rejected a motion to close debate on the bill, but farmers, ranchers and agricultural groups that supported the bill are determined to bring it back.

The legislation contains landmark provisions that would stabilize a worsening labor crisis facing farms across the nation. In addition to reforming the existing agricultural worker program, the bill seeks to increase border enforcement and deal with the presence of an estimated 12 million undocumented residents. It also would create a new merit-based system for future immigration.

But the bipartisan effort failed a crucial test when it could not muster the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate to advance the bill to final passage. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., yanked the bill from the floor and moved on to other legislation. Reid indicated, however, willingness to again consider the immigration reform bill in about two weeks, after debate on energy bills concludes.

"Breakdown in the Senate immigration debate was a clear disappointment, but it's far too early to fold the tent and assume that nothing is going to happen, especially from agriculture's standpoint," said Jack King, California Farm Bureau Federation manager of national affairs.

From comments made following the failed procedural vote to limit debate, King said "there are clear indications that the measure will come up again after a cooling-off period."

For one, Reid expressed desire to complete work on the controversial bill, leaving open the possibility that lawmakers could still reach a decision on immigration legislation.

"After a few days passed following Thursday's vote, cooler heads prevailed and there was more talk of bringing the bill up again as long as there is agreement on the number of amendments to be heard and terms of the debate," King said. "But even with that kind of agreement, it's not expected to happen immediately."

Though Reid pulled the bill, both he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated that differences might be bridgeable.

"Democratic and Republican Senate leaders both described their intent to come back to the issue," said King. "Key senators who negotiated the Senate package are still talking, and they express their determination to push ahead."

However, many consider the prospect of Congress passing such controversial legislation as diminishing as the presidential election approaches.

Yet, agricultural leaders remain hopeful.

"We saw amazing leadership and statesmanship from so many," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. "There is huge pressure to move a solution forward."

In the end, 37 Democrats, seven Republicans and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, voted to end the debate and advance the measure. King noted that a number of those who voted no actually supported many of the elements in the legislative package.

"Throughout the Senate debate, and some 40 offered amendments, the agricultural elements fared very well," he said. "When attempts were made to water down or delete the special agricultural provisions, the votes failed by large margins."

Also, several senators, including Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., specifically mentioned AgJOBS as a model for the way bipartisanship can be achieved, King added.

Under AgJOBS, farmworkers currently in the country illegally who pay fines, commit to several years of future work in the agricultural sector and obey the law would ultimately have a chance to earn legal residency, but they would not be able to break in line in front of those who have applied legally.

Provisions in AgJOBS would also streamline the existing agricultural guest-worker program, known as H-2A, to make it more workable and less prone to litigation.

Two amendments of the bill drained away Republican support, however. They included a measure to reduce non-agricultural guest-worker visas from 400,000 to 200,000 and a second amendment to sunset the guest-worker proposal after five years. The latter measure passed by one vote. These issues and ways to regain Republican support will have to be addressed before the measure comes up again, political insiders say.

Despite the setback, King said it is not time yet to say, "Let's do AgJOBS alone." At some point, an incremental effort might emerge as the only opportunity, he said.

"We are not there yet," said King.

David Schwabauer, a Ventura County lemon grower and CFBF director, warned that if opponents of the bill try to amend it too much and AgJOBS becomes bogged down with "so many poison pills that we can't deal with, then it puts us in a very challenged position of not being able to back our own bill."

"And that's very scary and very frustrating," he said. "We really wish very hard that we could fix the situation, but when you have so many players involved with so many competing agendas, it's very hard to find the consensus."

Some recent polls found that the American public supports immigration reform with various preconditions, including having illegal immigrants pay fines and allowing them to return to their home countries. An estimated 20 percent oppose immigration reform outright.

CFBF President Doug Mosebar said California farmers and ranchers face labor shortages and potential crop losses, therefore it is in the nation's interest to establish a legal and workable guest-worker program.

"The alternative is increased reliance on other countries to produce our food," he said.

Mosebar said he hopes congressional leaders would return to the issue and called on farmers and ranchers nationwide to put pressure on their lawmakers.

"We must get the word to our legislators," he said. "What's important is that we stay committed and positive in our approach, while keeping the issue alive with our legislators."

Other California farmers are also holding out hope that Senate leaders would revive the bill and move it forward.

"The status quo is bad for America. It hurts the economy, it undermines our food security," said Luawanna Hallstrom, an Oceanside tomato grower who also chairs the CFBF Labor Advisory Committee. "The American people want and deserve a solution, not more of the same."

Mosebar said the issue is too important to give up and everyone must keep fighting.

"Immigration reform is a long and winding road," he said. "We can't take this as a permanent setback."

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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