Tuesday, September 18, 2007
It's really time that America wakes up and recognizes that our dependence on foreign labor is exactly like our dependence on foreign oil," he said. "And we better be careful what we wish for if we cut off that supply without a backup plan."
Farm needs revive immigration debate
Congress set to take up issue again as labor concerns crop up.
WASHINGTON — From the Rio Grande Valley's citrus groves to Washington state apple orchards, growers are warning that agriculture is in increasing distress because of labor shortages brought on in part by stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws.
Congress appears to be paying heed as the growers complain ever more loudly of fruit and vegetable crops rotting in the field, planting plans being scaled back and production moving to Mexico. So, less than three months after the Senate nixed an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy, senators are poised to jump back onto the roller coaster and confront uncomfortable and politically treacherous questions about illegal immigration and U.S. labor needs.
It remains to be seen whether the same complex factors that doomed the White House-backed comprehensive bill in June will snare the fresh efforts.
"A lot of people are scared of this issue, and I understand that," said John Gay, co-chairman of the business-backed Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.
But, he added, "The big lesson is that the issue doesn't go away. One Senate vote doesn't mean that 12 million undocumented disappeared. ... The situation is here and it keeps getting worse."
First up as the immigration debate resumes: During this week's defense authorization debate, Democrats will seek to attach a measure granting citizenship to certain illegal immigrants who came here as children and have gone on to success in college or the military.
The main attraction, though, for the agricultural industry comes in October. The Senate is expected then to take up a farm bill that is the likely vehicle for an agricultural worker program pushed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would grant legal residency to 1.5 million illegal immigrant farm workers.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison may find herself in the thick of that debate as she and other Republicans search for a way to deal with agriculture's labor shortages without providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The Texan is working with a trio of fellow Republicans — Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama — on a guest worker program for agriculture and other industries.
Hutchison made clear the GOP plan, shaping up as the rival to Feinstein's AgJobs bill, would not offer citizenship to the temporary workers.
"The problem we had in the last bill was the controversy over amnesty," Hutchison said when asked how her legislation could avoid the fate of the proposed comprehensive immigration fix.
Sessions, who called AgJobs a "massive amnesty," is pressing for a program that would allow foreign workers to stay in the U.S. for as long as 10 months and then return home before applying to re-enter for another temporary work cycle.
The idea is unacceptable to immigrant-rights advocates and many in agriculture, which is heavily dependent on a work force estimated to be at least 70 percent illegal.
"Everyone knows (the GOP plan) is designed to kill AgJobs," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-advocacy group. "And it will not pass."
Hutchison is making no promises. "I don't know if we are going to be successful," she said. But, she added, "Let's try taking it in smaller pieces and do what, really, Congresses in the past should have done."
Feinstein has said she has more than 60 Democratic and Republican backers for her bill — which, if correct, could provide a filibuster-proof majority. The measure, embraced by most agriculture interests, also has widespread support in the House, where it has yet to be scheduled for a vote.
But no one is rushing to claim victory just yet.
"It's a steep climb, but there is so much at stake," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, which backs the AgJobs legislation.
Potential rival bills worry Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, which also backs AgJobs.
"We know from all of our years of trying to get reforms through for agriculture that when anything is perceived as being too partisan, it doesn't get anywhere," Hughes said.
Already, the battle lines are being drawn.
In a "critical immigration alert" to his Senate colleagues last week, Sessions estimated AgJobs actually could legalize 3.3 million immigrants, noting that the legislation would extend legal status to the 1.5 million farmworkers' spouses and children.
"We're talking a massive increase in low-skilled workers, people without language skills and far fewer high school diplomas and college credits," he said.
Regelbrugge and his allies are fighting back with facts of their own, questioning whether it's in the national interest to lessen U.S. food production and in turn lose jobs in the food processing industry as well.