WASHINGTON — In an era of intensely partisan politics, few domestic issues have suffered during the past year from oversimplification, overheated rhetoric and an overwhelming lack of honest debate as much as the issue of immigration reform.
For politicians and pundits on both the right and the left, it would seem that the issue has become less about immigrants — or, more specifically, migrant workers from Mexico — and more of a touchstone for scoring easy points with voters through plant and farm raids, screeds about terrorism and border security, and arguments that illegal immigrant labor costs domestic jobs.
Meanwhile, an ever-growing number of foreign workers find themselves exploited, with scant legal recourse, by unscrupulous work-visa expedition agencies, while growers say their fruits and vegetables rot on the ground far from the urban centers where low-skilled non-immigrant labor is most plentiful.
Taking another swing at these seemingly intractable problems this year are produce industry groups such as the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association.
Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh, said that the legislative environment is more conducive to discussion of the issue now than it was last year.
“Everybody sees that this is a time to get comprehensive immigration reform done,” he told SN. “Part of the problem last year was that the issue came up right before an election, and you had people on both sides using it as a posturing issue. Right now, I think you've got much more thoughtful consideration being given in Congress as to what type of policy really would work. How do we deal with the immigrants who are already here? How do we help them transition to a legal workforce? How do we set up a guest worker program so that people don't have to sneak across our border?
“In our industry it's critical that we have people to harvest the crops. And if we have jobs available and we don't have enough employees — which is the case right now; there's a huge labor shortage in our industry — we want to be able to have those foreign guest workers come in and do the job legally.”
Many growers are supporting a compromise bill known as AgJOBS, which is up for debate in the Senate next month. Otherwise known as the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2007, one provision of the bill would allow non-citizens who have been working in the agriculture industry for at least two years — legally or not — to obtain a “blue card,” providing the documentation they would need to work legally in agriculture for a period of three to five years.
The bill would also make it easier for seasonal and temporary workers, such as farm workers, to obtain H-2A work visas.
“AgJOBS represents a solution for agriculture that PMA supports, as well as other produce organizations and other agricultural organizations through the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA. “We believe that it's the solution for agriculture, including fresh produce, and we would like to see it pass either alone or as part of more comprehensive legislation.”
Means said that legislators who work for major agricultural districts are already well versed in the issue. But groups such as PMA have been working to enlist food retailers to their cause as well, hoping that supermarket operators, as business leaders in urban and suburban centers around the country, could give a voice to the issue in their districts as well.
“AgJOBS is not an amnesty program,” Means explained. “It's about proper documentation of the labor force, and an orderly transition to a reformed H-2A [temporary visa] program.”
Emphasizing that the produce industry has experienced ongoing difficulties in its attempts to recruit U.S. citizens to farming and harvesting jobs — due to the temporary nature of the work, as well as the location of farms far outside of cities — Means noted that the labor shortage was already beginning to affect produce supplies.
“Last year there were some areas that had trouble getting their crops harvested” due to a lack of workers, she said. “This year, those same areas are reporting an additional 30% decline in their labor pool. This is going to affect our domestic food supply.”
Proper documentation would make legal workers much easier to track, Means argued, and would free up law enforcement to focus on other border security issues.
“Retailers should know that this is affecting the supply of produce in the United States,” she said. “Whether or not retailers are behind a comprehensive immigration reform bill, they should support AgJOBS, because this labor issue is going to affect store shelves and restaurant plates.”