Although there is consensus that comprehensive immigration reform legislation will not be addressed in 2009, there are signs that reform specific to agriculture could move forward. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) is reportedly ready to reintroduce the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, according to an agricultural labor expert.

The AgJOBS bill will likely be refreshed to reflect current wage rates, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. He is optimistic the bill will be introduced this year and will continue to receive widespread support. "While there is a significant portion of the left and right that are opposed to a guest worker program, however, for agriculture, there is widespread recognition that agriculture needs a guest worker program," he said, adding that he believes the AgJOBS bill will include reform of enforcement and a guest worker program.

AgJOBS would provide legalization to those who have worked in agriculture, allowing them to apply for temporary residence status, Gempler noted. An eligibility window of time worked in agriculture must be met before they can apply for a change in legal status.

The legalization adjustment would apply to "a lot of people in our work force, in my opinion, to those in year-round jobs and middle management," he said. "We have tens of thousands of people in agriculture who are not just coming in for harvest, but are here now, running orchards and packing houses, who would benefit."

Labor analysts estimate that 70 percent of agriculture’s field work force is undocumented, he said. "That’s tremendous exposure for our industry."

It has also been estimated that some 600,000 people would benefit from
the legalization adjustment of AgJOBS, ­Gempler adds. How many and how long those receiving a change in their legal status will stay in agriculture is unknown.

Gempler considers the legalization aspect of AgJOBS as a temporary reprieve until mechanization and temporary visa programs are fully utilized.

A second component of AgJOBS is revision of the H-2A program to make it easier to use and less expensive. The H-2A guest worker program, regulated by the U.S. Department of Labor, currently provides agricultural employers with a means to bring guest workers into the United States. However, the program is unwieldy and expensive.

He said that interestingly, the United Farm Workers Union has hired an international director to organize workers in foreign countries. Such a move is recognition by the UFW that temporary visas will be a factor in future agricultural labor ­relati4ons.

H-2A revisions

During the closing days of the Bush Administration, the Department of Labor proposed final regulatory changes to improve the existing H-2A program. Gempler notes that while the regulatory changes were designed to make the program easier to use, there are pros and cons to the changes that became effective January 17, 2009.

It is expected that advocacy groups will attack the new regulations, either through legislative efforts or individual and/or group legal actions. The new Democratically controlled Congress could rescind the regulatory changes, or the incoming Secretary of Labor, who Gempler said is opposed to guest worker programs, could make changes.

"It shows what can happen when you rely on regulations to make fundamental changes," Gempler explains. "With statutory changes, the changes are made to the law, and we would see changes made under a more stable and legal environment." Gempler believes that AgJOBS could be introduced as early as this winter or spring, he told growers attending the Northwest Cherry Institute in January. "So when the call comes urging you to contact your legislators, I hope you can react and urge support of the legislation."