San Diego Union Tribune

June 30, 2007

Uphill battle seen for farm-field work force

Industry sets hopes on AgJobs proposal


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 upbeat.

“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 each year.

“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.”

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