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AgJobs Take 2

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 12, 2007

There was a Congressional Press Conference on the reintroduction of the AgJobs bill and United Fresh applauded:

At a congressional press conference today, United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh) saluted members in the House and Senate for their reintroduction of the Agricultural Job, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS), a bipartisan agricultural labor reform package that would provide needed reorganization of the H-2A Agricultural Labor Program and address the need to adjust the status of current illegal workers, providing a compromise on the two major issues facing agricultural labor.

Kelly Henggeler,
Henggeler Packing Company
Fruitland, Idaho,
current Chairman of
US Apple Association.

Participants in the press conference included Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Larry Craig (R-ID), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and House members Howard Berman (D-CA), Jim Costa (D-CA), George Radanovich (R-CA), and Mike Thompson (D-CA). The press conference also incorporated produce industry representatives including United Fresh member and current Chairman of the U.S. Apple Association, Kelly Henggeler of Henggeler Packing Company from Fruitland, Idaho.

“Meaningful immigration reform is one of United Fresh’s top legislative priorities, and today’s introduction of a bipartisan agricultural package represents an important step toward reaching that goal,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh. “Our nation as a whole depends on a stable workforce for the timely harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables, and that stability is crucial to United Fresh members’ efforts to supply safe, high-quality produce to their customers,” said Guenther. “The current H-2A program has not been reformed in more than 50 years and is ineffectual in many regions of the United States. The comprehensive reforms of the AgJOBS legislation meet the needs of both agriculture and labor communities, and thus has garnered strong backing from both groups,” Guenther stated.

Toni Scully, owner of Scully Packing Co., a pear farm and packing company in Lake County, California. The photo beside her is of Toni Scully’s farm, a mountain of overripe pears that were never picked and packed due to labor shortages last season.

The legislation also represents careful negotiations involving agriculture interest, farm employer representatives, worker advocates, Members of Congress, and others. “AgJOBS also represents years of negotiations and strong advocacy efforts by many United Fresh members, and we applaud both the House and Senate members who participated in today’s press conference. There is still much more to be done, and we will continue to work closely with congressional supporters to build additional support for AgJOBS in the House and Senate,” added Guenther.

PMA also reaffirmed its support. Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association applauded Florida lawmakers for their role in the introduction of the bill.

John McClung, President and CEO of the Texas Produce Association, also reaffirmed the Texas trade’s support for AgJobs in an e-mail to the Pundit.

The Texas Produce Industry, Texas Citrus Mutual and the Texas Vegetable Association have been vigorous supporters of AgJobs from the beginning. We see it as a reasoned, rational and effective way to solve the multiple problems that are consistently lumped into “immigration reform.” We have said that securing the borders is elemental, but that there’s no reason Congress can’t produce a credible guest worker program at the same time it takes the steps necessary to minimize illegal immigration.

This is an issue that is close to home in the Rio Grande Valley. My house is exactly one third of a mile from the river, in a rural area that is fairly heavily vegetated so the illegals often choose the road in front of our home in the hopes of avoiding la migra. Just last night, shortly after dark, I was out in front and four young guys, obviously illegals, went trotting up the road. Point is, I have a personal interest in immigration reform and border security that exceeds the average. And the obvious answer, once you get past the dead end ideologues in the House, is that we need a foreign worker program that works and we need to regain the rule of law at the borders. Politically, we believe we’ll only get both if they pass the Congress as a package.

As has been widely observed, the flipping of Congress to a Democratic majority will make getting a smart law a lot more likely. Fortunately, the White House has been in the right place on this issue all along, so we don’t have a hurdle there. However, the Administration also has been reluctant to really twist Congressional arms on this, in large part because much of the Republican conservative base is sceptical. Passage will require a real push from the President.

A couple of points that are important but that often get drowned out in the debate:

  • Agriculture — including the produce sector — generally agrees that there should be stiff penalties for employers who demonstrate a pattern of hiring illegal workers. But before you can really punish these folks, you have to have a functional way for them to determine who’s legal and who is’nt. As you know, what happens now is that illegals can buy false documents from many places, and employers are in violation of the law if they question those documents. That’s nuts. We must have a dependable vetting system before we can control illegal migration, because only the denial of jobs will ultimately curtail such migration. At the end of the day that may well mean a national ID card, which seems to stir all sort of passions for reasons I can’t fathom.
  • We need a day crossing program, which at the moment is not part of AgJobs. There are many Mexican workers who can find employment within 100 miles of the border who can — and do — cross daily and return home at night. But the current system is awkward and difficult. There are ways to fix this situation legislatively, and we’re working on the issue.
  • “The Fence.” Of all the feckless notions the anti-amnesty crowd came up with the last term of Congress, the fence was the most outrageous. So guess what legislation the Congress did pass? Go figure. Fortunately, funding was never approved and it appears no literal fence will happen. We may wind up with a few miles of “actual” fence in urban areas, but it seems that for the most part we’re headed for “virtual” fencing along most of the border. By the way, does that include the Canadian border, which covers a lot more miles than the 2,000 mile southern frontier? Of course not!

So, bottom line is we will work for passage of AgJobs or whatever version of that concept emerges once Congress does what Congress does. It looks like most of the early action will be in the Senate — the House got its ears pinned back last term and seemingly will wait to see what comes out of the other chamber (although AgJobs was introduced in both the House and Senate: S: 237 and H.R. 371. We’ll have a better idea of where things stand after the ACIR/NCAE flyin January 23-25.

ACIR is the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, which is a single issue coalition staffed primarily by the American Nursery & Landscape Association and NCAE, which is the National Council of Agricultural Employers. United, PMA, and all the regionals have coalesced under that banner. In fact, according to ACIR, there are “nearly 300 national, regional, state, and local organizations whose members produce fruit and vegetables, nursery and greenhouse crops, dairy products, poultry, livestock, and Christmas trees.”

John McClung is always a straight shooter who tells it like it is.

The politicos all report that with the switch in Congress to the Democrats, the chances for the bill’s passage are much improved. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

The issue is a big one and the needs of agriculture are just one component of the national debate on immigration. We’ve dealt with the subject here and found that even within the industry there are mixed feelings.

Part of the problem is that the government just has no credibility anymore on this issue. Here is a piece the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association ran in its newsletter in March of 1981:

The Select Commission on Immigration in Washington, D.C., has recommended vast changes in the nation’s immigration laws. These changes include: giving “amnesty” to three million illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before January 1, 1980; making it a crime to employ an illegal alien; and having much stronger border enforcement. These recommendations were included in the final report of the commission.

The commission, headed by Notre Dame University President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, designed proposals that would keep the channels of legal immigration open while seeking to put a stop to border jumping and other forms of illegal entry.

Obviously it didn’t work out as promised. The Pundit thinks it is still going to be difficult to get this law passed unless this credibility gap is overcome. We gave our suggestions on how to do that here

Fortunately the industry isn’t just waiting for a political solution. We talked about a mechanical grape harvesting system here and the cover story of California Farmer this month is entitled Labor Answers. The cover story explains:

“The most exciting development,” says Sutton, “is a mechanical harvester for head lettuce. We have two prototypes out in the field, and growers look at them and say, ‘That’s nice, but we need this, this and this.’ So we go back to the shop and make the changes they need to make the system work, and in a few years, I predict the harvest of head lettuce will be fully mechanized.”

We can push the politics but we better push the mechanization at the same time.

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