Now that President Barack Obama is in office and the 111th Congress moves to order on the nation’s business, the U.S. Apple Association and other agricultural trade groups are reassessing their priorities and mapping legislative strategies for the year ahead and beyond. Agricultural labor and immigration reform remain the top USApple priority, so what can we expect from the new administration and revamped Congress in regard to real labor reform?

President Obama and many of his top appointees understand the unique labor needs of agriculture. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood all cosponsored AgJOBs when they were in Congress. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano supported AgJOBS while Arizona governor.

During the campaign, Obama stated that he would like to pass comprehensive immigration reforms in his first year. However, the reality of the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and problems in the Middle East may make this difficult, if not impossible.

USApple and the other members of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the National Council of Agricultural Employers will continue to make the strong case that agriculture cannot wait and that AgJOBS would be a good "down payment" on larger comprehensive reforms. AgJOBS will be reintroduced early in the 111th Congress. In the House, Rep. Howard Berman (Democrat, California) and Rep. Adam Putnam (Republican, Florida) will be the lead sponsors. Putnam takes over from Rep. Chris Cannon (Republican, Utah), who lost his bid for reelection. Congressman Putnam, a farmer himself, recently stepped down from the Republican leadership, allowing him to take a more active role on issues of importance to him, including AgJOBS.

AgJOBS champion Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California) continues to be the lead sponsor in the Senate. She is reaching out to her Republican colleagues to identify a lead Republican now that Senator Larry Craig has retired. USApple and other members of Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform are also meeting with key Senate Republicans to urge their support of the bill.

Our tight coalition of agricultural employers, farmworker advocates, and faith-based organizations has held together and remains committed to passing this important piece of legislation. The coalition’s employer groups, such as USApple, stood by their word when the Republicans were in control, and now the United Farm Workers and others on the "left" are standing by us with the stronger Democratic majority. This puts the AgJOBS coalition in the unique position of having the only guest-worker legislative proposal with labor union support.

In the meantime, the following regulatory and enforcement issues will still be a major focus in the new Congress:

"No Match" Rule: Implementation of the Social Security "no match" rule, which requires employers to match Social Security numbers of employees, is still tied up by litigation. In December, the federal judge presiding over the case denied the government’s request for an early decision. A schedule for both sides to present their case with written arguments is pending. Regardless of the court’s ruling, the ultimate decision about whether to go forward with the proposal will likely be made by the White House.

E-Verify Rule: First proposed in June 2008, the E-Verify Rule requires federal contractors and subcontractors to use the federal electronic employee verification (E-Verify) system to electronically confirm their employees’ eligibility to legally work in the United States via their Social Security number. The final regulations for federal contracts—issued in mid-November—require federal contractors to participate in the E-Verify program effective January 15, 2009. However, apples and apple products were exempted, along with other produce items and processed food products commercially available at retail.

Initially, this represented a major victory not only for the apple industry, but anyone in agriculture wishing to do business with USDA or the Department of Defense.  USApple requested exemptions for apples and apple products from the proposed rule in regulatory comments submitted to the General Services Administration last summer.

However, new E-Verify requirements were proposed—and later dropped—for inclusion in the recently passed economic stimulus package, so this issue could hang around in 2009.

H-2A Reform: Implementation of the Bush administration’s proposed regulatory changes to the H-2A system have been on hold since an injunction was issued last year. USApple and other impacted entities submitted comments at that time.

The regulations include expanding the definition of agriculture so that packing houses can utilize the H-2A program, allowing a housing voucher, and elimination of the 50 Percent Rule. However, the regulations also contain some adverse changes, including increased recruitment costs. There is strong opposition to the regulations by worker groups and unions, and they are expected to seek to delay or defeat implementation through litigation or Congressional action.

A ruling could come by mid-April. Regardless of the outcome, the Obama administration could still drop the measure altogether.

USApple’s Public Affairs Committee met in January to define the year’s legislative and regulatory priorities. The committee unanimously agreed that agricultural labor reform remains our top priority and voted to support passage of agricultural labor legislation that:

• provides a stable, adequate, able and predictable supply of agricultural labor able to participate legally in the U.S. work force, and

• addresses the high level of H-2A wage rates, simplifies the program, and provides legal reform to remove unreasonable employer sanctions

The uncertainty of regulatory reform and the likely continuation of current enforcement measures further underscore the need for legislative action. USApple will continue to make agricultural labor and immigration reform a top priority with the 111th Congress and the Obama administration.