Jun 19, 2007
Time to Lobby for Immigration Reform Legislation

Well, it finally happened – the long awaited legislation to reform immigration and tighten U.S. borders finally came to Congress for debate. The AgJOBS provisions many farm groups wanted is in the package, along with provisions that would change U.S. immigration law in unprecedented ways.

It is not clear these provisions can in fact pass.

It seems now that the best course, for farmers, is to stick with a plan they were putting in place before the developments described on page one of this issue occurred. They need to make it clear that United States agriculture needs a work force that includes foreign workers.

Fruit and vegetable growers need to convince their members of Congress it’s “safe” for them to vote for immigration control measures that include allowing foreign workers access to farm work in the United States.

And to do that, they need to convince the general public first.

That message was delivered to fruit and vegetable growers by John Bakker and Denise Yockey in a series of three meetings across Michigan in early May. They outlined an action program growers need to carry out now – even though it’s the busy farming season – or face not having harvest labor in the future.

The also described a new coalition of 17 Michigan organizations that was formed to carry out the program.

Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, said that Michigan’s Congressional delegation has been caught between farmers who need seasonal farm workers and a crowd yelling “throw them out” and “build a fence.”

In Michigan, where unemployment is high, it is hard to convince people there are not enough workers to fill jobs, he said. Other people are fearful, feeling that 12 million undocumented immigrants pose a threat to the country’s security.

Yockey, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, said most members of Michigan’s congressional delegation understand the need for seasonal farm labor and “would like to be with us,” but they can’t fly in the face of their other constituents.

“Congress understands our need,” she said, “but their calls are running 99 to 1 against what we need in agriculture. Congress is looking for us to tell our story to the public.”

Yockey told the growers that if the guest worker issue is not settled by August, it would probably be shunted aside as the politicians enter into presidential campaign mode for the next year.

Amy Hagerstrom, one of two issues management consultants hired by the coalition, said that, right now, on a vote in Congress, not only could Michigan farmers not deliver their delegation, “not one” would vote in favor the legislation farm groups say they need.

“Your voices have been so drowned out,” she said.

“They want to go where it’s safe, and right now ‘the tough stance crowd’ is winning,” said consultant Mark Pischea. “We need to stand up and scream, ‘We need relief now!'” he said.

About 35 people came to the grower meeting near Sparta, Mich., to pick up a packet of materials put together by the coalition called Family Farms Feed Michigan’s Future. There were asked to take “action steps,” including putting up yard signs, distributing brochures, meeting with elected officials, writing letters to legislators and newspapers and being messengers to others within their sphere of influence.

The goal is not so much to convince legislators directly but to create an understanding and a mood in the broad community such that members of Congress can “safely” vote for a guest worker program.

This public awareness campaign was timed to start about mid-May, kicked off by another in a series of fly-ins to Washington, D.C., on May 16. Formation of the Michigan coalition was announced that same day.

Other members of the coalition include the MACMA Apple Committee, the Michigan Celery Promotion Board, the Michigan Cherry Committee, the Michigan Agri-Business Association, Peach Sponsors, the Michigan Plum Advisory Board, the Michigan Floriculture Association, the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation, Wine Michigan, the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee, the Michigan Food Processors Association, the Michigan Vegetable Council and the Michigan State Horticultural Society.

Michigan has used foreign farm workers for about 100 years, Yockey said, and needs about 45,000 seasonal workers every year to follow the crops during harvest. In total, agriculture in the U.S. needs about 1 million such workers, she said.

The coalition has created yard signs that read “Michigan needs seasonal farm workers,” followed by the phone number (866) 265-3005.

“We don’t expect to get many calls,” Pischea said. “But it drives home the message that growers want to hire willing workers – and that not many people want that kind of work.”

“These are jobs that Americans have rejected for more than 100 years,” Yockey said.

“The question isn’t whether foreign-born workers will plant, tend and harvest our crops and livestock,” according to materials put out by the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, a national coalition of more than 800 organizations pressing for the passage of AgJOBS legislation.

“The question is, will they do it in America or somewhere else?”

Pischea said that, given enough money, advertising would be the method of choice for educating the public about the needs of farmers.

“We don’t have the funds for an ad campaign of that magnitude,” he said.

The alternative is to build support from the grass roots up, asking growers to take action to influence those within their sphere, and then try to enroll them in the effort as well.

It doesn’t take many letters to the editor or calls to legislators to create a big effect, he said.

To become involved and obtain information packets, yard signs and bumper stickers, contact the coalition through the Michigan Apple Committee in DeWitt at (800) 456-2753. Information packets include “talking points,” so that all members of the industry present a consistent message.

USApple has a Web site devoted to immigration reform, including a section where you can write to your Congressional representative: www.usapple.org/aglabor/index.cfm.





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