WASHINGTON – As
agricultural lobbyist Craig Regelbrugge sorted through the
rubble of Thursday's collapse of immigration legislation
in the Senate, he clung to hope that his industry could
salvage its effort to ensure itself a work force to
harvest fruits and vegetables.
LAURA EMBRY / Union-Tribune
Although the immigration bill has unraveled,
California's two senators and farm lobbyists hope to
revive the AgJobs proposal, which provides for
legalization and guest-worker programs tailored to
the agriculture industry. "This is going to be a
very difficult agricultural year without some
methodology to legalize agriculture workers," Sen.
Dianne Feinstein said.
He and other farm lobbyists, along with California's
two senators, are hoping Congress might consider narrower
legalization and guest-worker programs designed
specifically to help the agriculture industry.
Given the decisiveness of the defeat of the broader
bill, their battle appears uphill. However, they remain
“Everybody understands that there isn't a domestic ag
work force ready and willing to come in if only the
immigrants would go away,” said Regelbrugge, who
represents the American Nursery and Landscaping
Association. Its members produce much of the country's
fruit and vegetable growing stock.
Regelbrugge says that argument, combined with rising
public concern about the safety of imported foods, gives a
fighting chance for the proposal known as AgJobs.
Thrashed out in years of negotiations between growers
and their traditional foes in the United Farmworkers
Union, AgJobs proposes a path to citizenship for current
farmworkers who commit to a few more years in the fields.
And in anticipation that those workers would seek work
elsewhere as soon as they have green cards, it would
create a streamlined program to bring in guest workers
“There are many lawmakers, of both parties, who say,
'Ag is different; I'm OK with doing something for
agriculture,' ” Regelbrugge said. He points to Michigan
Democrat Debbie Stabenow, who this week helped defeat the
immigration bill but supports AgJobs.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for
American Immigration Reform, which favors restrictions on
immigration, said the public outcry against legalization
would sweep such an effort away.
“It is very clear that the American people don't want
amnesty,” said Mehlman, invoking the immigration “a” word
for what people on Regelbrugge's side of the debate prefer
to call “earned legalization.”
“The public wants the government to enforce the laws
that are already on the books. The purpose of immigration
law is not to guarantee big agricultural interests the
cheapest possible workers. There is no reason why
agriculture shouldn't be subject to the same competitive
wage market that every other industry is subject to.”
But AgJobs has California's two senators on its side.
One of them, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is pledging to bring
it back to life, perhaps by attaching it to the farm bill
or another piece of legislation.
“I view the passage of AgJobs as vital to the nation,”
Feinstein said yesterday, warning that the $35 billion
California farming industry can't wait. “This is going to
be a very difficult agricultural year without some
methodology to legalize agriculture workers.”
Tom Nassif, president of Irvine-based Western Growers,
a trade association, said the industry is going to press
ahead despite warnings that the odds are long for any
congressional action in the near term.
“We cannot afford to say we'll accept this as a loss
and come back for reform after the 2008 election,” said
Nassif, acknowledging the difficulty of the task. “We have
to do something now, regardless of how long the odds are.”