Keep your eye on the ball
A recent opinion piece on immigration reform ("Take Me Out to the Ballgame," by Dan Fazio in the June 2009, Good Fruit Grower) justifies a response to clarify the historical and factual record regarding the AgJOBS legislation, and explain why it is the best option for agriculture.
First, the facts. The AgJOBS legislation, reintroduced in Congress as S.1038 and H.R.2414, represents a lasting bipartisan commitment to address a broken status quo that ill serves growers, producers, farmworkers, and the nation. The landmark agreement among employer and worker advocates was reached late in 2003, not in 1996. It has been popular ever since, and it passed the Senate as part of a broader bill in 2006.
However, 1996 was an important year in the effort to reform the H-2A agricultural worker program. That year, grower efforts to pass a pure H-2A reform bill failed in a Republican-controlled Congress. The effort became partisan when labor, faith, and civil rights groups opposed it. H-2A reform was killed by nearly unified Democratic opposition, joined by 80 or so "immigration restrictionist" Republicans who took the view that growers simply needed to pay more, or mechanize. Life lesson learned: the "perfect" H-2A bill could not pass in a Republican-controlled Congress; it cannot pass now.
The most serious error in Dan Fazio's article was one of omission. The author suggests that AgJOBS is only about legalization for unauthorized farmworkers. In fact, AgJOBS is a two-part bill. Both parts are essential to fix the problem; both parts are essential politically.
Title I would stabilize the farm labor crisis by allowing qualifying experienced farmworkers to earn legal status over time, subject to strict conditions, including a multiyear future commitment to agricultural work. Earned legalization will benefit all sectors of U.S. agriculture needing hired labor. It is especially important in the West, as California, Washington, and Oregon rank first, third, and fourth, respectively, in hired farm labor. Politically, without earned legalization, we lose the labor, faith, and immigrant rights groups needed to move a bill through Congress.
Title II of AgJOBS is about H-2A reform; 75 pages of the 105-page bill spell out in detail how the H-2A program must be administered. AgJOBS limits the flexibility of current and future labor secretaries to rewrite the rules, something that is happening right now. Until critical reforms of H-2A are achieved in statute, we will be subject to the shifting ideologies of each new administration.
The H-2A reforms in AgJOBS are critical to the broad-based farmer coalition that negotiated AgJOBS. AgJOBS will streamline the program, cut red tape, and bring wage relief, legal reform, and housing flexibility. While the H-2A reforms of AgJOBS do not achieve 100 percent of the employers' initial agenda—and no product of the legislative process ever will—many of the most experienced H-2A experts in the country negotiated the package and stand by the result.
The late Dr. James S. Holt, nationally renowned agricultural labor economist and consultant to most of the existing H-2A programs in America, was the lead negotiator. Large and successful H-2A programs, ranging from the New England Apple Council to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association to the Snake River Farmers and Western Range Associations, worked to craft AgJOBS and endorse it now.
Will starting over somehow yield a better product? We believe that the present legislative and regulatory environment is absolutely treacherous, and that reopening AgJOBS will result in lost ground for growers. Indeed, AgJOBS is the only employment-based bipartisan immigration agreement intact today. The general business community is starting from scratch, scrambling to make the basic case that the nation even needs a guest-worker program. With AgJOBS as the lone exception, "guest-worker" has become a four-letter word in the immigration debate.
Some call for a greater state role in facilitating H-2A. Stronger relationships with other countries to address problems such as exploitation and corruption are a worthy goal. The goal should be achieved within the context of a federal program, and not in the form of state-by-state negotiations to establish a unilateral guest-worker program. Frankly, states lack the legal authority. A state program would require a federal waiver and the delegation of authority by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to state agencies. These are highly unlikely to occur. A state-by-state regime would also be challenged and dismantled by organized labor and its allies.
Even if states were delegated the right to run their own programs, western agriculture would likely lose competitive position. Employer-friendly southern states might implement very grower-favorable programs, while more labor-friendly Washington, Oregon, and California tilt the balance away from the employer and toward the worker. The West will benefit from a level playing field resulting from a reformed federal H-2A program.
Some suggest that agriculture should tie its fate to the general business community. While we are collaborating with other business groups, agriculture has its own identity and needs. Right now, the general business community is fighting against a broad call for "future flows" of workers to be decided by a commission. AgJOBS is the one exception, due to its unique employer/labor agreement.
And, AgJOBS enjoys the support of the business community! Upon its reintroduction, pro-business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Legislative Council, Americans for Tax Reform, and ImmigrationWorks USA endorsed the bill. As did the National Association of Counties and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. As do hundreds of agricultural associations from coast to coast. Because of the unique labor/employer coalition behind the bill, AgJOBS enjoys the support of Senators Murray and Cantwell, and Governor Gregoire.
So to return to the ballgame analogy: Yes, Congress successfully tackling immigration is as uncertain as the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl. But, thanks to years of training, American agriculture is on the field, and has the best offense in the league. Anyone sitting on the bench is welcome to join the team on the field. As agricultural employers and associations, we must keep our eye on the ball. The ball is AgJOBS.
Northwest Horticultural Council
Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association
Washington Growers Clearing House Association
Washington Growers League
Washington State Horticultural Association
Washington State Nursery & Landscaping Association
Washington Association of Wine Grape Grower
Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association
Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association
Agriculture Coalition for immigration reform
American Nursery & Landscape Association
National Council of Agricultural Employers
National Potato Council
U.S. Apple Association
United Fresh Produce Association
Washington State Potato Commission
Oregon Potato Commission