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Pres. Bush Pitches Immigration Reform

President George Bush took to the stump in late November to urge Congress to cut through the Gordian knot of issues involving immigration, border security and the perceived needs of many American businesses for cheap, unskilled labor.

The president’s basic approach hasn’t changed since he presented it almost two years ago, but the emphasis in his recent speeches was different. Talking tough, he attempted to mollify those in his conservative base who want stern measures on border security and equate efforts to legalize illegal immigrants to coddling lawbreakers.

Bush proposed tough measures to defend the borders but more orderly ways to funnel immigrants into the country to do the menial work of picking produce, cooking in fast food restaurants and cleaning hotel rooms.

United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association President Tom Stenzel recently praised the Washington Post for its reporting of an “impending labor crisis that is hampering winter vegetable production this year near the Mexican border in California and Arizona.”

Industry efforts to build pressure in Congress for immigration reform got a boost from the Post’s reporting, he said.

“The Post’s interview with Western Growers Association and vegetable growers near the border is a great step to focus attention in Washington, D.C. on the crisis the produce industry is facing in harvesting this year’s crops,” Stenzel said. “Our industry must continue to stress the importance of passing immigration reform legislation in Congress that includes a guest worker program for ensuring a legal flow of farm and packinghouse workers. This crisis is not limited to the border, but affects our industry throughout the country.”

The American Farm Bureau was pleased with Bush’s more aggressive push.

“President Bush outlined a comprehensive strategy for immigration reform that reinforces respect for our laws, makes sense and is strongly supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman. “We praise President Bush for his leadership and for recognizing that there must be a legal channel for foreign laborers to be employed in the United States through a temporary worker program.

“Farm Bureau is strongly supportive of actions to secure our borders and enforce immigration laws, but equally important is creating a new temporary worker program. As President Bush said, ‘People in this debate must recognize that we will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary worker program.’

“Many jobs in agriculture are seasonal and are jobs that U.S. workers are unwilling to do. Without guest workers willing to come to work in the U.S., America’s crops will go unharvested and livestock untended. Without these vital workers, the affordable and plentiful foods that America’s consumers want and need will be in jeopardy, as will the livelihood of farmers and ranchers who rely upon guest workers.

“We urge Congress to follow the president’s lead and include a temporary worker program in any immigration reform legislation that is passed.”

Farm Bureau’s praise wasn’t completely lavish. The California Farm Bureau reports a growing labor shortage that is putting the $2.5 billion Imperial Valley vegetable crop at risk, with harvest a month away.

To blame, according to the organization, a broken immigration system that includes increased border enforcement, no viable guest worker program and increased hassles for those trying to cross the border legally. California produces about 90 percent of the nation’s fresh winter produce.

The United Farm Workers labeled Bush’s proposal a “report to deport” program and reiterated its support for AgJOBS, the bill that has been stalled in Congress.

“Most immigrant workers who have been here for years will not take part in a program that means they will be deported after three or six years, UFW said.

“Any immigration proposal needs to have what the AgJOBS bill has: a path to earned legalization, strong protections for imported guest workers, criminal background checks and the ability of workers to cross back and forth across the border without risking their lives.”

Bush’s speeches came a month after he signed a $32 billion homeland security bill that contains large increases for border protection, including 1,000 more border patrol agents.

He seemed to say that stern border security measures have been taken, now let’s work on a process to let workers in.

Congress has largely shelved the issue. The Senate has postponed its work on immigration proposals until early next year, partly because lawmakers are divided over the scope of such changes and whether foreigners illegally working in the United States should be allowed to stay.

The president’s plan pairs a guest worker program with border security enforcement, an attempt to satisfy his business supporters, who believe foreign workers help the economy, and his conservative backers, who take a hard line on illegal immigration.

In a speech in Tucson, Ariz., the president aimed his remarks at those conservatives, emphasizing his proposals to secure the border, remove people who enter the country illegally and strengthen enforcement of immigration laws.

Bush has been urging Congress to act on a guest worker program for more than a year. Under his plan, undocumented aliens would be allowed to get three-year work visas. They could extend those for an additional three years, but would then have to return to their home countries for a year to apply for a new work permit.

The guest worker program has met some resistance in Congress, where several bills on the issue have been introduced.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have proposed providing illegal aliens in the United States with visas for up to six years. After that, they must either leave the United States or be in the pipeline for a green card and lawful permanent residency.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., support an alternative proposal that would require illegal aliens to return to their home country to apply for admission under a temporary worker program.

Senate GOP leaders plan to take up legislation early next year that will address a guest worker program. Their counterparts in the House have indicated they want to take up border security first and then move to a guest worker program.

Bush’s plans for border enforcement, stricter immigration law and a guest worker program are spelled out in greater detail on the White House Web site, http://www.whitehouse.gov .

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007