Immigration reform is the number-one issue for farm groups across the country, says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

Immigration reform is the number-one issue for farm groups across the country, says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

Geraldine Warner

A group of Washington State growers has joined an immigration-reform coalition that is targeting conservative House Republicans with appeals from business, faith, and law enforcement organizations.

The Washington Growers League is capitalizing on renewed calls by President Obama and many congressional leaders for comprehensive immigration reform. House Republicans are considered the lynchpin for achieving significant change in U.S. laws.

Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler said a coalition in Washington State will be unveiled February 26 in Yakima, Washington, and will include traditional advocates and newly recruited individuals whose support will be essential in lobbying House Republicans. Gempler and others spoke about the coalition at the annual Growers League meeting held in Yakima, Washington, on February 19.

Gempler said immigration reform is the number-one issue for farm groups across the country. “If we don’t have a reliable work force, we’ll be in trouble,” Gempler said.

The growers heard speakers describe reform as necessary—from both a moral and business perspective—to provide more humane treatment of undocumented workers and their families and to address a critical need for labor to harvest crops. Gempler said the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 55 percent to 70 percent of agriculture workers are undocumented.

The Growers League is partnering with the Seattle-based advocacy group OneAmerica for organizing support around a statement of reform principles called the Washington Compact.

OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz said organizers at the state and national levels are engaging members of such groups as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and evangelical churches. The coalition wants conservative House Republicans to see grassroots support within their own base for changes in immigration law. Stolz encouraged growers to recruit people to the Washington Compact coalition and to personally lobby members of Congress. He said the recruitment has gone well, but many more supporters need to be enlisted. “This is one issue where there is broad consensus for change,” he said.

Advocates for immigration reform have been encouraged by proposals advanced by President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators who have agreed on a set of principles for a sweeping overhaul.

Alan Schreiber, of both the Washington Blueberry Commission and the Washington State Asparagus Commission, said demand and prices for blueberries were soaring, but the ability to harvest additional berries was limited by labor shortages. The problem is even worse for asparagus growers.

The Washington Compact has been endorsed by one of Washington State’s leading business advocacy groups, the Association of Washington Business.

“In line with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AWB supports the Washington State Compact’s efforts to show that business, faith, and law enforcement leaders are solidly behind policy makers who want to change our system of immigration,” AWB President Don Brunell wrote in a letter to the Growers League.