'We won't give up' on immigration reform, leaders say

Issue Date: July 4, 2007
Christine Souza

Farmers in the Central Valley are reporting that they are faced with a limited supply of workers to harvest their fruit

With the failure of the U.S. Senate to reach a compromise to reform the nation's immigration laws, family farmers and ranchers face another year under the threat that crops will go to waste because of a lack of hands to harvest them. But despite the setback, the California Farm Bureau Federation has vowed to continue pushing for a stable work force for agriculture.

"The issue of immigration reform needs to be put in place and corrected so that we can have a guest-worker program that is workable and viable," said Fresno County Farm Bureau President Russel Efird, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to legislators about the labor issue on behalf of farmers.

"The Senate's failure to reach a compromise last week leaves things status quo and that is not enough for agriculture," Efird said. "It is unfortunate that once again our Congress could not do the job that it has been sent there to do."

CFBF President Doug Mosebar said the stalled immigration reform bill is disappointing, but California's agriculture sector will keep pushing toward a solution that will provide consumers continued access to safe, affordable, American-grown food and farm products.

"We can't give up and we won't give up. This is too important to farmers, ranchers, our employees and all consumers," Mosebar said. "Farm Bureau remains committed to immigration reform that secures our borders while making sure that farms and ranches can hire the skilled people they need."

The Senate last Thursday failed to invoke cloture to move to a final vote on passage of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Senate Bill 1639. The bill would have established an improved temporary-worker program—a Farm Bureau-supported measure called AgJOBS, which allows people to enter the nation legally to fill on-farm jobs. Other goals of the bill were to strengthen border security and institute a credible employment-eligibility verification program.

Supporters of the bill fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate and clear the way for final passage of the legislation. The final vote was 46-53.

CFBF National Affairs Manager Jack King said he believes that once senators realized that the 60 votes needed to limit debate and move to a final vote could not be attained, senators from both parties decided to play it safe.

"It was clear to the key players that they didn't have the 60 votes, so I think what happened was the division continued in the Senate. They couldn't find that exact spot in the middle where they could attract enough people from both parties," King said. "Once it became obvious that they didn't have the votes, then I think some folks did not want to go out on a limb. Things got worse from that point.

"There is a lot happening with this bill, but all along we've known that the different sides have had different needs. The fact that people on the extreme ends were unhappy certainly pointed to the fact that it did strike some middle ground, but in the end it still proved too contentious for it to happen," King said.

Luawanna Hallstrom, San Diego County tomato grower and chair of the CFBF labor advisory committee, said she is still optimistic that progress can be made.

"This has been a hard blow for all of us, but we remain vigilant in our desire and our belief that we need to get something done this year. We absolutely refuse to give up," said Hallstrom, who has worked on the issue of immigration reform for 22 years. "What we have to do now is take a breath and look at our options."

For Hallstrom, who has spent hundreds of hours in Washington, D.C., educating legislators about the importance of this issue to agriculture, the senators who voted against completing debate did not do their job.

"Those in the Senate who failed to move the motion forward to complete debate are choosing to not be a part of the process," Hallstrom said. "They are in those positions to use the democratic process and they are not doing it. They are not doing their job.

"The consequences of this are horrific. You want to talk about the proliferation of an illegal system and the falling and crippling of an industry, an economy and a country and its people … every vote makes a difference," Hallstrom said.

Farm Bureau leaders who have been at the forefront of immigration reform thanked California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer for voting to continue debate on the immigration bill, adding that Feinstein has been a "tireless champion" for farmers throughout the debate.

"Our senators, in the end, showed their support as they have all along for AgJOBS. Senator Feinstein said she might attach it to the Farm Bill," King said. "There are people such as Senator Feinstein who are not willing to give up yet, and we are certainly not going to give up. We will forge ahead and make something happen."

Many farmers are having trouble with securing a work force, even under current conditions, so the implementation of a temporary worker program such as AgJOBS is vital to California agriculture, King said. Farm labor shortages in 2006 resulted in at least $85 million in crop losses, delayed harvests and diminished quality, according to Farm Bureau statistics.

Efird said he faces a limited supply of workers to harvest his fruit. Normally, he has two crews of about 18 workers to pick fresh fruit. Today, that number is more like 10 or 11 workers per crew.

The silver lining for California agriculture related to the development of a nationwide guest-worker program, Efird said, is many on Capitol Hill understand the troubles faced by agriculture due to the dwindling labor supply.

"Every time we spoke with a senator or congressman or congresswoman, we would ask the question, if this comprehensive immigration reform fails, what about AgJOBS as a stand-alone measure? Almost every individual we spoke to was supportive and understood," Efird said. "They understand the unique problem that agriculture has and that we do not have the labor to do what we have to do."

Debate on comprehensive immigration reform resumed June 26 after the Senate moved forward with a cloture vote to reconsider Senate Bill 1639. During the week, senators considered a handful of amendments, including one that would require a longer period of time in the United States as a precondition of obtaining legal status and another that would require returning to the home country first before obtaining legal status. Amendments that would have been injurious to agriculture were voted down, King said.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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