Farm groups are optimistic on overhaul of immigration

A coalition of groups representing farm workers and employers says those it represents have the best opportunity in years to win congressional approval of legislation overhauling immigration rules for migrant workers, either as a stand-alone bill or part of a wider immigration bill.

A coalition of groups representing farm workers and employers says those it represents have the best opportunity in years to win congressional approval of legislation overhauling immigration rules for migrant workers, either as a stand-alone bill or part of a wider immigration bill.

Supporters of the changes say their optimism springs from the combination of Democrats controlling Congress and rising pressure on lawmakers representing agricultural districts to alleviate a farm laborer shortage as increasing momentum for the Agriculture Jobs Opportunity and Benefits Act (AgJOBS).

“The flow of workers is being constrained; labor enforcement is making that worse, so labor shortages are just getting worse,” said Craig Regelbrugge of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, whose members include apple- and orange-growers, milk producers and nursery associations.

Groups representing apple-growers and wineries in New York, for example, expressed disappointment when several New York House GOP sponsors of AgJOBS voted for a 2005 enforcement-only bill authored by former House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that included criminal penalties for those who help workers who enter the country illegally, but no temporary-worker program.

The president of the New York Apple Association, Jim Allen, said members of farm groups in his state were “shocked” when Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.), a longtime supporter of New York agriculture, signed a letter with Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) that called for tighter border-enforcement measures.

“It’s accurate that they weren’t happy with the vote,” said an aide to Kuhl, who, after hearing criticism of his vote for the Sensenbrenner bill, pressed GOP House leaders in October to pass legislation creating a stand-alone temporary-worker program for agriculture. On Jan. 11, Kuhl made the same request of Democratic leaders.

One agriculture lobbyist credited Kuhl’s successful reelection bid to support from farmers in favor of the temporary-worker program. AgJOBS sponsors and New York House Republicans James Walsh and Tom Reynolds also faced some criticism for voting for the 2005 bill. All three won bids for reelection in tight races last fall.

Regelbrugge sees two possible scenarios for AgJOBS this year. The bill could become part of a wider immigration overhaul, similar to what happened when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) added the bill in an amendment to immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year. Besides Feinstein, sponsors included Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), and Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Adam Putnam (R-Fla.).

If efforts to craft a wider immigration package fail, Regelbrugge said a scaled-down package for agriculture might still be able to move through Congress given support for the bill from farm employers and workers. While organized labor has been divided on the issue of temporary-worker programs, United Farm Workers has endorsed AgJOBS, giving the legislation crucial support from the farm labor group organized by C