Apr 7, 2007
Bills Could Have Profound Effects

There are dozens of bills in the U.S. Congress that address immigration reform in one way or another, but only one that deals specifically with agriculture.

The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2005 (AgJOBS) has been debated for more than two years, but hasn’t made it through the Senate or the House of Representatives. Supporters want to push AgJOBS through as soon as possible, but whether it emerges from Congress in its original form is beyond prediction.

Compromises will have to be made with those who favor stronger enforcement of illegal immigration and tighter border security. It’s not going to be easy.

Immigration reform is such a thorny issue, with so many competing philosophies swirling around it, that no piece of legislation is likely to emerge from the debate unscathed. Border enforcement, cheap labor, legal residency and other controversial problems present daunting challenges for any that dare try to solve them.

Some things are clear to AgJOBS supporters, however. The country’s current immigration system is broken. Millions of illegal aliens are in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of them work on farms, comprising an estimated 70 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce. If punitive enforcement measures are passed with no recourse for earned legalization, agriculture could lose two-thirds of its workers overnight. If that happens, crops would be left to rot in the fields, farms would go out of business and Americans would end up getting more of their food from foreign countries.

“We have to have means for growers to have a workforce,” said Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. “They need a safety valve.”

A potential compromise might be on the horizon. There are indications President George Bush wants action on immigration reform soon. The House and Senate could be pressured to cobble together legislation that pleases the president.

That might be tough to do, since Bush hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for the bills that are out there, said Frank Caterinicchio, political consultant for the United Agribusiness League, which represents agricultural employers in California and Arizona.

“There isn’t a single piece of legislation the president supports and is actively campaigning to pass,” he said. “You need that to get anything done.”

On Jan. 7, 2004, Bush announced his vision for fair and secure immigration reform. He proposed a new temporary worker program that would match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers when no Americans could be found to fill the jobs. The program would allow undocumented workers currently employed in the United States to come out of hiding and participate legally in the country’s economy, but would put measures in place to discourage further illegal behavior, according to the White House.

The president’s proposal seems to fit nicely with the goals of agricultural employers and employees, but any proposal that has even a whiff of amnesty about it is bound to be unpopular with hard-line reformists.

“Laws against illegal immigration must be enforced if they are going to act as a deterrent,” according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform’s Web site, www.fairus.org. “Redefining illegal aliens as ‘guest workers’ or anything else is just that: a redefinition that attempts to hide the fact it is an amnesty, not reform.”

Besides AgJOBS, two other bills – representing opposite poles of the debate – have gotten attention lately: the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act of 2005, also known as Cornyn-Kyl, and the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, also known as McCain-Kennedy.


On April 19, the Senate voted 53 to 45 to add AgJOBS as an amendment to the fiscal year 2005 Supplemental Appropriations bill. Even though it had a majority, AgJOBS needed 60 votes to stop a filibuster. It fell seven votes short.

Despite its failure to pass, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said he was encouraged by the close vote and would continue to push the issue. Craig and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced AgJOBS in September 2003.

“The AgJOBS bill would provide a two-step solution: For the short term, on a one-time only basis, experienced, trusted workers with a significant work history in American agriculture would be allowed to stay here legally and earn adjustment to legal status,” according to Sen. Craig’s Web site, www.craig.senate.gov. “For the long term, the currently broken and cumbersome H-2A legal guest worker program would be overhauled and made more streamlined, practical and secure.”

About 500,000 undocumented workers would be eligible to apply for legal adjustment, according to Craig’s Web site.

AgJOBS was hammered out during years of negotiations between grower and farm worker organizations.

“Farm workers and growers have some common interests,” said Marc Grossman, principal spokesman for United Farm Workers of America (UFW). “They don’t agree about a lot, but they’re on the same page when it comes to AgJOBS.”

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform and senior director of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscape Association, has been “deeply immersed” in immigration reform issues for seven years. The reform coalition’s members represent the full breadth of labor-intensive agriculture in America, including fruit and vegetable growers, and they all took part in negotiating the agreement that became AgJOBS, he said.

The temporary foreign worker program, also known as H-2A, is about 50 years old. It’s expensive, bureaucratic, unresponsive and the source of much litigation. AgJOBS would streamline the H-2A process for growers and would bring them immediate wage relief, Regelbrugge said.

“AgJOBS has a balanced approach that gives workers fair rights, protects growers from frivolous litigation in state courts and encourages mediation to resolve disputes,” he said.

The bill would especially benefit workers who have moved into key positions, such as managers. If these workers were forced to go home it would be a disaster for growers.

“They’ve become the spine of the work force,” he said. “If you surgically remove the spine, the beast can’t stand.”

Under the AgJOBS approach, experienced farm workers would come forward, establish their true identities and eventually petition for a more permanent legal status after doing substantial work in agriculture for three to six years.

“Some will say that’s amnesty,” Regelbrugge said. “Amnesty is unconditional forgiveness. The AgJOBS approach is more like atonement. Workers have to earn the right to stay, and it allows us to keep our trained and trusted work force.”

AgJOBS offers workers a hard-earned legalization as opposed to an amnesty provision, said Grossman, UFW’s spokesman.

“Farm workers seek relief from that which makes them so vulnerable to abuse – uncertain immigration status,” he said. “They want a green card.”

The H-2A procedural changes would not compromise worker protections, and the bill includes stringent national security measures. Business groups, labor groups, religious groups, Latino rights groups and others support the bill, he said.

“It has more broad-based support than any other immigration reform proposal,” Grossman said. “It offers a real solution to what every rational person admits is a broken immigration system.”


In May, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Kennedy and other legislators introduced a bill informally known as McCain-Kennedy. The bill would create a new temporary visa to allow foreign workers to enter the country and fill available jobs that require few or no skills. It also would allow undocumented immigrants to register for a temporary visa, valid for six years, and would provide a mechanism for future adjustment to permanent legal status.

The United Agribusiness League supports any bill that would allow for more farm labor to come into California, including AgJOBS and McCain-Kennedy, Caterinicchio said.

“We need to do something about ag labor shortages,” he said. “People are concerned it will take a harvest crisis before anything happens.”

McCain-Kennedy broadly covers immigration reform, but doesn’t specifically address agriculture the way AgJOBS does. The reform coalition is generally supportive of McCain-Kennedy. AgJOBS could possibly be folded into it as part of a legislative compromise, Regelbrugge said.

UFW supports McCain-Kennedy because it has an avenue for earned legalization, Grossman said.


In July, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., introduced a bill informally known as Cornyn-Kyl. The bill would require illegal aliens to depart the country within five years and reenter through normal legal channels. It also would establish a new visa category that allows aliens to enter the country to work temporarily when there are no available U.S. workers. The visa period would last two years, after which the worker must return home for one year. Workers could participate up to three times, for a total of six years of employment in the United States.

“(Cornyn-Kyl) is based on the rule of law and our need to restore enforcement of our laws,” Cornyn said when the bill was introduced. “We must enact laws capable of strong enforcement and our laws must be fair, requiring all undocumented individuals to go through the legal process.”

UFW does not support Cornyn-Kyl because it’s a punitive guest worker program with no avenue for earned legalization or worker protection, Grossman said.

“This bill would create a new unlimited guest worker program with no chance for workers to earn the right to stay in the country,” according to UFW’s Web site, www.ufw.org.

Cornyn-Kyl is heavily focused on enforcement, and many of its measures are anti-employer, Regelbrugge said.

“From a national security perspective, we all agree we need a well-managed border,” he said. “We need to remember who the real threat is: people who want to do us harm. It’s shortsighted for us as a nation to pile on border security and watch our agriculture go offshore. We could rely on China for all our apples.”

The Big Picture

Three bills hardly capture the complexity of the immigration reform debate, or the concerns many Americans have about border security, terrorism, drugs, gangs and the like. The individual bills are important only as far as they advance the principles behind them. If supporters of a bill can reach their goals by combining it with other bills or dropping it altogether for legislation that better advances their cause, they will do that.

For Regelbrugge, the principle is keeping American agriculture in America. If U.S. farms go, so will many of the industries they support.

“For every job we have on a farm, there are three and a half to four jobs in the local economy,” he said. “If we send our agriculture offshore, we’re going to lose those jobs, too. Then we’ll wonder what we did.”

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