Tree fruit industry advocates believe the timing is right for Congress to pass an immigration reform bill. But it won’t come easy and will take effort from labor-intensive growers across the country to make sure legislation provides a reliable and legal work force for the tree fruit industry.

“We have a narrow window of opportunity between now and May, but we’ll have to work hard to get it passed,” said Jon Wyss, government affairs analyst for Gebbers Farms, a tree fruit grower-shipper in Brewster, Washington.

Agriculture was on the cusp of immigration reform when tragedy struck on September 11, 2001, and again in the closing days of Congress in 2006 with President George W. Bush. Wyss said that with the general election over, campaign promises to fulfill, and support building for immigration reform from both political parties, “We’re on that cusp again.”

For labor-intensive agriculture, immigration reform is the biggest, most important issue, he reminded growers at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting. When he joined Gebbers in 2005, it was the first issue he worked on, and he’s still working on it.

Severe labor shortages in Washington State in 2011 garnered national attention when Governor Christine Gregoire allowed prisoners to pick apples. Last year, it was a struggle to harvest Washington’s biggest crop ever, and some growers had to prioritize their harvest, choosing which blocks to harvest and which to leave behind because they didn’t have enough pickers. Growers in California reported a labor shortage of up to 40 percent.

“If it’s our most important issue, then where are we, and where are our voices being heard?” Wyss asked, noting that those who oppose immigration reform and changes to the H-2A guest-worker program for agriculture outnumber farmers by four to one.

Ag labor group

Following the severe labor shortage in 2011, Governor Gregoire appointed a 15-member committee to look for state solutions. Wyss, a member of the work group, says the committee was evenly represented by agriculture and labor, with Dan Newhouse, director of the state agriculture department, serving as moderator.

Work-group members agreed that the state can positively influence some areas of the H-2A program by ­making state regulatory changes, such as shortening the 75-day recruitment period and changing state housing regulations that currently are so stringent that even hotels can’t be used for housing.

Not surprisingly, the area of biggest ­disagreement within the group was wages.

It’s a misconception that farmers would have all the labor they need if they would only pay higher wages, he said.

Wyss counters that fast-food giant McDonald’s never has a labor shortage for their seasonal, summer help who are paid around $9 per hour, yet farmers can’t fill picking jobs that can pay $14 to 15 per hour for piece rate, with housing. “Whenever I share that, I get a blank stare. The opposition can never see the correlation. We in the tree fruit industry are offering more for a seasonal job than McDonald’s, yet we can’t get the workers to come.”

This time, agriculture is more unified in its message that labor-intensive growers need a program that provides a reliable and legal work force, says Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for United Fresh ­Produce Association.

The American Farm Bureau Federation recently changed its national policy on immigration reform and has joined the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform and other agricultural groups lobbying Congress. “They’re all part of the discussion now,” Guenther said during the Hort Association meeting. “That’s been a stumbling block in the past for agriculture.”

Nancy Foster, president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, said that the Agricultural Coalition and Farm Bureau are working together, and a much broader coalition of agricultural groups is involved this go-around. “Agriculture will be ready if comprehensive or piecemeal immigration legislation is introduced,” she said. “We’re now recognized as having a need for legal workers.”

Wyss says that for the first time that he can remember, all major agricultural groups are together. “If we can keep the coalition together, we’ll be in a powerful position to get something passed.”

Farm Bureau spent nearly a year working on a new agricultural proposal that would leave the existing H-2A program in place for those who successfully utilize it, while a new program is being developed, said Wyss. Highlights of the Farm Bureau ­proposal include:

  • Moving regulatory oversight of the H-2A program from the U.S. Department of Labor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Allowing for an optional contractual relationship between employer and guest worker
  • Housing and transportation optional, not required
  • Reduced recruitment obligations in comparison to the H-2A program
  • Changes to visa eligibility—eligibility conditional upon initial job offer with registered employer. Existing undocumented workers eligible with no limit on number of visas.
  • Agriculture would be defined in the broadest sense for the guest-worker program, which would include packing and processing. (Guest workers of food packing and processing facilities are currently regulated by the H-2B program, which also governs guest workers used in high tech and other industries.)
  • Disputes resolved through mandatory arbitration.