Apr 7, 2007
Bush Wants Immigration Reform By End of Year

President George Bush is committed to reforming the “problematic” immigration system in the United States by the end of the year, said Mike Johanns, secretary of the USDA.

In order to do that, however, the president needs Congress to come up with a comprehensive bill, said Barry Jackson, deputy assistant to the president.

Johanns and Jackson addressed the National Council of Agricultural Employers Jan. 25, during the organization’s 42nd annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Both men said the president approves of many of the provisions in the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS), but he wants to sign a bill that addresses undocumented workers in every industry, not just in agriculture.

“Many provisions of AgJOBS are consistent with the president’s view,” Johanns said, but “we need a comprehensive approach that is as broad as the issues involved.”

Bush wants to create 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. His proposed program would allow undocumented workers currently employed in the United States to come out of hiding and participate legally in the country’s economy, while putting measures in place to discourage further illegal behavior, according to the White House.

AgJOBS, which has languished in Congress for more than two years, would allow undocumented employees with a significant work history in American agriculture to stay in the country and eventually earn adjustment to legal status. It also would overhaul the current legal guest worker program, according to AgJOBS supporters.

The president recognizes that American agriculture cannot survive without the millions of farm workers that keep it going, many of them illegal. The fruit and vegetable industries are especially vulnerable to labor shortages, Johanns said.

“We recognize that labor is a key to your industry,” he said. “Our impressive production and export statistics are only as good as the strawberries picked – and picked in a very critical window of time – and the tomatoes that are harvested at their peak, not abandoned because there was not enough labor to do the work.”

Shortages in California and Arizona, two of the biggest produce states, have been significant, he said.

“These and other labor-intensive states typically need large numbers of workers for short, intermittent periods at critical times,” Johanns said.

The president’s proposal would give undocumented workers, who are easily exploited, a reason to come out of hiding. That could lead to a more stable work force for farm owners, he said.

“The real challenge these workers face is the uncertainty of the system,” he said. “They are simply looking for a pathway to certainty. If you could give them that, they’ll follow it.”

Agricultural employers can play an important role in keeping their valued laborers by educating the public and putting pressure on Congress, Johanns told the NCAE members.

“We need people like you who can tell the story,” he said. “You can tell it so much better than I can. We want you at the table. We want you talking.”

Jackson, who addressed the council later in the day, had a similar message.

“We have the tools to develop immigration policy,” he said. “But it must be a comprehensive approach. Piecemeal solutions are doomed to failure.”

A comprehensive approach would include three elements: securing the country’s borders, strengthening enforcement and creating a temporary work force, Jackson said.

The president and Congress have increased the first two elements but still are struggling with the third.

“In a lot of ways, the president’s hands are tied,” he said. “Sealing off the border takes care of one aspect of the problem, but leaves the economy hanging.”

Bush has talked about the need for a temporary worker program since the beginning of his presidency, but Sept. 11 and its aftermath derailed his plans, Jackson said.

Despite his embrace of a temporary worker program, the president does not support amnesty, he said.

“The word ‘amnesty’ has become so politically charged,” he said. “The president thinks it’s a get out of jail free card. He won’t support that. He’s always envisioned some package of fines and penalties.”

Congress has the ability to move quickly when it feels pressure. Agricultural employers need to apply that pressure, Jackson said.

“One way or the other, we’re going to get a temporary worker program. It’s our job to make sure it happens this year.”

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