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At the beginning of every year, growers ask me, "What are the chances that we will get immigration reform this year?" My response: "What are the chances that the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl or the Mariners will win the World Series this year?"

The analogy works. Major immigration reform last happened in 1986—it’s been more than 20 years. And shouldn’t sports fans in Washington expect a world championship every 20 years or so? Unfortunately, after ten years of pundits telling us that this is the year for immigration reform, it’s kind of hard to believe that this could be our year.

On the other hand, since immigration reform is a once-in-a-generation thing, growers need to be on the same page when the issue next comes up for debate this fall. To do this, we need to understand the basics of the deal that is in front of us now, and how we can make it work for us.

AgJOBS. A good idea, or a good idea whose time has passed?

In the mid 1990s, the agriculture industry struck a deal with labor advocates that is called AgJOBS. At that time, West Coast growers were worried because the migrant workers who had been given amnesty ten years earlier were beginning to leave agriculture for construction, and were being replaced by workers with dubious employment documents. On the East coast, growers who had no local work force used a federal guest-worker program called H-2A that enabled them to bring workers to work in tobacco, citrus, and a number of other crops.

On the worker side, organized labor was hostile to any improvements in the guest-worker program, but wanted to help out farmworkers. The help that farmworkers sought was status adjustment, i.e., green cards for undocumented workers. Labor unions wanted to strictly limit the numbers eligible—they didn’t want a bunch of new immigrant construction workers. This played perfectly for growers, who wanted to keep the workers in agriculture for as long as possible. So, the AgJOBS deal was struck: Status adjustment would be granted only to workers who were previously working in agriculture, and who would remain working in agriculture for the next several years.

In its ten-plus years of existence, AgJOBS got close, but never got over the hump—for reasons that are too numerous to recount here. The problem is that the game has changed, and we need to reevaluate our strategy in light of the new reality. Like the team who is a perennial cellar dweller, we need to make some changes to our strategy to get back in the game.

E-Verify and H-2A

After 9/11, it quickly became obvious that the free flow of workers across the border would end, and more importantly, that any immigration reform proposal would require every employer to take positive steps to guarantee that the person you hire is legally eligible to work. Under our current system, the worker provides employment eligibility documents and attests to the validity of those documents. But any immigration reform proposal which is likely to be considered in Congress will most likely include provisions to make it the responsibility of the employer to verify legal presence of workers. The attack on America on 9/11 raised the priority for secure borders, and raised the stakes on immigration reform. We need to get it right this time.

A few farmers in Washington State are preparing by using the federal H-2A guest-worker program for a portion of their work force. The program is tough to work and needs fundamental changes. But it is vital that every grower try this program. First, it will provide you cover against a worksite enforcement raid. When you use H-2A, you are making a powerful statement that you are willing to invest in a legal work force. Next, you need to have an alternate plan. If you are able to get a portion of your crew from the H-2A program, you are in a better position to survive a worker shortage, whether it is caused by a big crop or a government crackdown. Finally, growers who use the program are more aware of how unworkable it would be if immigration reform happened, and all agriculture got out of it was some minor tweaks in the H-2A program.

Getting back in the game

It seems pretty obvious. Growers need a legal and stable work force. Countries like Mexico and Honduras have lots of workers who are good farmers and want to come here and work. And if they were willing to come here for several years, we could teach them how to start their own orchard operation. How do we get there?

Our state has experience meeting with other countries to discuss trade. What if we enlisted our Department of Agriculture to negotiate with other countries, and ask these countries to share the burden of bringing workers here, and flying them home at the end of the season? That is the idea behind legislation that was introduced in our state legislature this year, and being discussed this summer by a task force that will probably be led by Dan Newhouse, director of the state Department of Agriculture.

The Farm Bureau took a lot of heat when we came out with the Essential Worker Pilot Program legislation this year. We all know that immigration is a federal issue, and some feared that it would divert our assets away from the main goal of comprehensive federal immigration reform. But like trade, which is also a federal issue, we have a long tradition of allowing state involvement. And, thus far, our idea is bringing people together, creating energy, and focusing us on the issue that agriculture needs a consistent and stable supply of legal workers.

Back in Washington, D.C., things don’t look so great. The discussion is being dominated by people who want to increase sanctions on employers. The labor unions have coalesced around a request for a more broad-based amnesty or status adjustment for workers, but we have made scant progress in a program that would provide agricultural employers with a realistic means to access a stable flow of workers. The conversation is centered around a commission that will determine what the proper need is for guest-workers in high tech and essential industries like agriculture.

At the state level, we have formed a strong coalition of businesses from every industry—agriculture, retail, the staffing industry, and high tech—which we call Immigration Works, Washington. We have aligned ourselves with national employer groups, and we are making our voices heard in D.C. To return to our baseball analogy, we are going to the park every day. When we hit a ground ball to the shortstop, we are running it out as hard as we can. And if we get in a slump, we are trying different options, like the Essential Worker Pilot Program. When the Immigration Reform World Series is played, we are going to be there. 

Dan Fazio is director of employer services with the Washington State Farm Bureau in Olympia.