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Pressure builds for workable immigration laws

Issue Date: March 15, 2006
Kate Campbell

With nearly $32 billion in crops on the line, California farmers join hundreds of agricultural leaders from across the nation this week to push for long-awaited immigration reform. They are scheduled to join the march on Capitol Hill today to press for legislation that will make meaningful changes to current immigration law—changes that won't cripple California agriculture and that allow farmers to provide food for American families.

"As farmers and ranchers, we already are facing spot labor shortages throughout the state, a problem that could get worse and impact everyone if Congress fails to enact a guest worker program as part of the immigration reform legislation being developed," said California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar.

House passage last year of H.R. 4437, an immigration enforcement-only bill, was the warm-up to the current wrangling, Mosebar said.

"Now it's up to the Senate to advance the argument, starting with the Judiciary Committee," he said. "Because these hearings are going on right now, and with so much at stake for California family farmers and ranchers, direct participation by our members is vital."

CFBF members who traveled to Washington to participate in today's march at the U.S. Capitol include Luawanna Hallstrom, whose family farms tomatoes in Oceanside and who is chairwoman of CFBF's Labor Committee; Tulare tree fruit farmer Kerry Whitson, chairman of CFBF's Rural Health and Safety Committee; Ventura lemon grower David Schwabauer, a CFBF director and past president of Ventura County Farm Bureau; and Watsonville strawberry grower Elia Vasquez, a CFBF director. Those scheduled to attend the march from Fresno County Farm Bureau include tree fruit grower and county Farm Bureau President Pat Ricchiuti, along with grape and dried plum grower Russel Efird.

The details of the current debate in the Senate go well beyond the AgJobs legislation that CFBF strongly supported, Mosebar said. "What's on the table now is a push for strict border enforcement as a starting point, with a guest worker program as a secondary consideration.

"Immigration reform that does not include an effective guest worker program together with border enforcement will not work for California agriculture," Mosebar stressed.

The bill introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., includes language from various other immigration bills and has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats.

The measure would give "conditional nonimmigrant status" to undocumented workers in the United States, but would not allow them to become citizens. It also would create a new guest worker program that would require visa holders to return to their home countries after six years.

Democrats largely favor a different bill (S. 1033) sponsored by senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called for a bill that would create a new guest worker program and allow undocumented workers to pay $2,000 and wait six years to obtain a green card.

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee approved doubling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol by adding 12,000 agents. At the same time senators approved language aimed at keeping many thousands of illegal immigrants, who aren't Mexican nationals, behind bars until they can be deported to their home countries.

Those from countries other than Mexico typically are released in the United States after promising to appear later in court, a promise rarely kept.

How much these kinds of measures will cost taxpayers and what they'll really get in the bargain, if legislation is passed, hasn't yet been tallied. Experts anticipate the price tag will be in the multi-billions of dollars.

The challenge will be getting immigration reform passed that's cost-effective and actually provides greater security for the United States—while at the same time permitting agriculture and other business sectors to access international workers. It's a high-stakes effort with a very tight deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has requested the Judiciary Committee complete an immigration bill to be ready for floor debate during the week of March 27. If the committee is unable to produce a bill by that time, Frist said he plans to bring his own immigration bill to the floor without committee consideration. That would likely prompt a nasty floor fight, according to several staffers.

Few senators were in attendance at the end of the March 8 markup of an immigration reform bill presented by Spector. Congress will begin its spring recess on March 18.

During hearings last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, "This bill has huge repercussions. You can't rush this bill, Mr. Chairman, or it's all going to fall apart on the floor. I urge you to slow this thing down."

In earlier committee comments, Feinstein had identified agriculture's specific needs.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he believes the bill crafted by Specter is "not quite there" in terms of shoring up immigration enforcement. Referring to the March 27 deadline for a floor debate, Sessions said, "Really, that's a stretch."

Debate on some of the most controversial aspects of immigration policy—how to handle the undocumented immigrants that are currently in the United States, estimated at 10 million to 12 million, and whether to create a broad new guest worker program—are supposed to be discussed this week.

Luawanna Hallstrom said, "What we have here in Washington this week is more than 200 agricultural leaders from around the country who have left their farms and businesses in the middle of the spring push to communicate our needs.

"A good chunk of our time is being spent on Hill visits, in both the Senate and House, to make sure our needs are understood," Hallstrom said. "We also are holding a press conference and a farmers' market in the Upper Senate Park to showcase farm-fresh produce from all over the United States. We are offering it to anyone who comes to meet farmers and learn about the role we play."

Hallstrom said from California agriculture's standpoint there are three important components that must be included in any immigration reform package: border enforcement, a guest worker program and earned adjustment for those currently working in the United States in agricultural jobs and in other industries.

"Any legislation that doesn't include those three components is going to be incomplete and unworkable," Hallstrom said. "Agriculture is not the only business that relies on international workers, look at hospitality and food service. The consequences of incomplete reform legislation will be massive, and I don't use that word lightly. I mean massive."

Privately, two separate committee staffers told representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation it appears unlikely the Senate's reform legislation will be completed before the end of this week, and that perhaps Sen. Specter could win some "wiggle room" for an extra week after the Senate's spring recess, if the committee appears to be making progress.

A Democratic aide said Democrats do not believe they can win a floor battle over immigration policy, and so may not be inclined to support quick committee action on Specter's bill.

Hallstrom said a Field Poll released last week indicating that two-thirds of Californians would support a guest worker program is significant because it shows people understand the situation and recognize the contribution international workers make to the state's economy.

"Our political leaders who are having trouble showing the courage to do immigration reform right need to catch up and realize their constituents already do understand," Hallstrom said. "Sometimes, it just takes more courage to do the right thing."

Schwabauer said one of the biggest reasons he is joining the march on Washington, D.C. for meaningful immigration reform is the need to build awareness of how the issue affects the nation.

"Immigration reform will affect anybody who eats," Schwabauer said. "This issue has become marginalized and people don't equate it to how many jobs in this nation are being held by undocumented immigrants.

"What I hope to gain from this trip is understanding by our political leaders about how changes to border security and immigration laws will affect growers like me. They need to realize what will happen when there's a lack of labor to pick our crops. This is a sensitive issue and people are reluctant to face the facts we deal with every day, but this is a situation that needs honest assessment and meaningful change."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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




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