In the closing days of the 109th Congress, the National Council of Agricultural Employers is urging an all-out effort from agriculture to lobby congress for comprehensive agricultural worker reform.

Earlier this fall, the U.S. Congress tackled the issue of border security, enacting legislation that will build a national fence.

Senate Bill 359, the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS), passed the Senate in May with a bipartisan majority, but stalled in the House of Representatives as the House dealt only with border security and not immigration reform. Attempts in the Senate to amend the border fence legislation and include AgJOBS also failed.

Sharon Hughes, executive director of the national agricultural employer group, said that Congress’s lame-duck session will likely go until Christmas. She urges all agricultural employers to contact their U.S. senators and representatives and insist on action on AgJOBS, either as an amendment to an appropriations bill or on the legislation itself. At press time for Good Fruit Grower, the council was gathering signatures from 300 agricultural groups across the nation to include in a letter to Congress urging passage of a comprehensive agricultural program this year.

“The need in agriculture for immigration reform is so dire,” she said, pointing to recent harvest disruption from enforcement action in New York State and widespread labor shortages throughout the United States.

Hughes said that according to Farm Credit Services in New York, 900 farms in the state will go out of business in the next 24 months unless there is immigration reform.

“We’ve been good soldiers, patiently waiting for 12 years for something to happen,” she said. “It’s past the point of putting it off any longer. And it’s way past the point of playing politics.”

She notes that a 60-member block of U.S. representatives has prevented action on immigration reform in the House. “With elections over, it’s time that the other representatives stand up to the block and demand a vote on the issue.”

H-2A reforms

AgJOBS would streamline and expand the H-2A guest-worker program used to bring in temporary legal aliens, and make it more affordable and useful to farmers. It also would allow farmworkers already in the United States without legal documentation a one-time opportunity to earn adjustment to legal status by meeting specific pre- and post-enactment agricultural work requirements.

Under the existing guest-worker program, growers have to go through a lengthy, complicated, and expensive process to demonstrate that there are not enough domestic farmworkers before they can bring in guest workers.

AgJOBS would streamline the process like the one now used for H-1B specialty workers.

Agricultural employers would continue to provide housing and transportation for workers, but a housing allowance could be an option, under certain circumstances. The Adverse Effect Wage Rate would be frozen for three years pending a study of its impact and alternatives.

Supporters of the legislation say the provision that allows agricultural workers to acquire legal status would not spur immigration, because this provision would be limited to experienced farmworkers with a significant work history in U.S. agriculture. It would not create an amnesty program.

Workers seeking legalization would first have to prove they had worked in agriculture for 150 days or 863 hours during the 24-month period ending December 31, 2005. They then must prove they performed at least five years of agricultural employment in the United States for at least 100 workdays each year during the five-year period beginning on the date of enactment or, alternatively, three years of agricultural employment in the United States for at least 150 workdays each year. A workday can be no less than 5.75 hours. After completing the requirements, the worker would be eligible for permanent resident status.

Supporters say border and homeland security would be improved by bringing workers out of the underground economy and registering them with the AgJOBS adjustment program. Growers and workers would get a stable, legal work force. And consumers could be better assured of a safe, stable, American-grown food supply, without increased dependence on imported food.