Immigration reform legislation that we had hoped would pass before the 2008 presidential election all but died last month when the Senate voted 46 to 53 against moving the legislation forward. In the end, the voice of opposition was so loud that it drowned everyone else out. Even senators who supported such reforms in the past voted against the bill once they realized it was going to be defeated.
Opponents of the measure declared victory and said the American people had "won." But American agriculture did not "win," and I doubt that many who opposed the bill gave serious thought to the proposition of importing their food the way we import oil.
Memories of last year’s worker shortages and crop losses are still fresh in the minds of many growers, and this year promises to be worse. Increased border security coupled with raids and enforcement has resulted in an ever shrinking pool of labor. Already this year, asparagus crops in Michigan have been mowed down for lack of workers, and cherry growers in California reported shortages throughout the harvest season.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says that this is the new reality. Although Chertoff has been one of the president’s point men on the immigration issue, in the end, it’s his job to enforce the law. At a recent meeting of business and agriculture leaders, Chertoff acknowledged that until Congress fixes the broken system, the enforcement will continue and even intensify.
Senators Larry Craig (Republican, Idaho) and Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California) have made a commitment to continue working in support of the provisions laid out in the AgJOBS legislation. Shortly after the vote, Senator Craig issued a statement in which he said, "Despite today’s vote, we still have a problem that needs to be solved. We have seen and will continue to see our farmers suffer from a labor crisis. We need to help them sooner rather than later, and I will continue to work towards that end."
Despite the defeat of this bill, there are some positive outcomes from the Senate debate. Members of the Senate and the Bush administration acknowledged that agriculture is important by including key parts of the USApple-supported AgJOBS bill in the comprehensive legislation. In nearly four weeks of debate, not one senator attacked or criticized those provisions, proving that there is a wide understanding that agriculture is facing a crisis. Even some of the comprehensive bill’s sharpest critics have indicated support of agriculture reforms.
The grassroots effort of apple leaders and others in the agriculture sector no doubt helped to persuade these supporters. Since April, more than 1,200 letters have been sent to Congress through the USApple Web site. Many apple leaders organized face-to-face meetings with members of Congress and reached out beyond the grower community by inviting suppliers and even consumers to weigh in on the impact of labor shortages on local economies.
We must continue to impress our needs upon Congress. The agriculture sector and the U.S. apple industry specifically will not give up the fight for an agriculture labor solution because the stakes are too high. Following the Senate vote, I sent a letter to all 100 senators about the industry’s deep disappointment in their inaction. I told them the apple industry is fiercely independent, but that "securing legal, reliable labor is an area where we need the federal government’s assistance. Without it, we could see the decline and outsourcing of the domestic apple industry."
In order to succeed, the voices of reason must win out over the rhetoric that has filled the airwaves. We must continue to tell our story to members of Congress, to the media, to our colleagues, to our friends, our families, and our neighbors. The "Keep Agriculture Working" section of the USApple Web site provides up-to-date information on the status of AgJOBS. I urge you to use the "Legislative Action" section of the Web site to send letters directly to your members of Congress. Go to www.usapple.org to make your voice heard.
If you would like additional information, contact Diane Coates or me at (703) 442-8850 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.