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Ag industry needs immigration reform passed before presidential election year

If immigration reform proposals currently under deliberation fail to pass muster before summer's end, the issue likely will disappear into the black hole of concerns too contentious to consider during a presidential election cycle.

And agriculture will continue to despair over a shrinking work force required to plant, tend, and harvest labor-intensive crops.

“The bottom line is, the farm labor force is shrinking,” says J Carnes, a Winter Garden, Texas, vegetable grower/shipper and president of the Texas Vegetable Association.

Current legislation, including the H2A program, “is unworkable,” he says. “I don't use it. We rely on different avenues to find legal workers. H2A satisfies only 2 percent of agriculture workforce needs. It's bureaucratic, litigious, and not a viable option for most of agriculture — it simply can't provide the volume of workers we need to stay in business.”

Carnes says a Senate proposal under consideration may answer some of the immigration and labor issues, and a daily crossing option shows some promise.

The latter proposal would establish an avenue for workers with valid identification documents to cross over from Mexico into the United States daily, and return after work.

“What we have now is simply not working,” he says. “We have no way to replenish the labor force, and it is shrinking.”

Current laws, he says, came through 1986 legislation and don't meet current needs. “We have no way to renew eligibility and no way to put in for more cards.”

The problem is exacerbated with an aging immigrant work force. “As workers get older, they no longer want to do manual labor,” Carnes says. And finding younger workers to do the hard labor is increasingly difficult. “Some areas don't need the manual labor, but we still do. We need Congress to act.”

He says legislators must look at the total immigration issue, not just enforcement. ‘It's like a three-legged stool.

“One leg is border enforcement, and we need that — it's a good thing. The second leg is immigration reform. Current policy isn't workable to provide necessary labor. We have no way to grow the amount of food we need without immigrant labor. And we can't become dependent on foreign sources for food.”

The third leg, he says, is the number of illegals already in the country. “We have to deal with some 12 million of them, and current laws aren't set up to do that.”

Any new immigration program has to consider all three of those issues, Carnes says. “If we don't, the whole thing will collapse.”

The mood has changed since last year, but meaningful reform still won't be easy. Current proposals focus on job skills rather than admitting new workers who already have family in the country. Carnes says some Hispanic organizations will push back on that proposal.

Agriculture holds a unique position in immigrant labor need, he says. “Our labor requirements fluctuate — they're seasonal. We may see an ag-only immigration reform proposal. But we need it to happen this year or it will be two years; it's not likely in a presidential election year.”

Tamar Jacoby, with the Manhattan Institute, an organization working with business coalitions in Washington, agrees.

“If it doesn't happen this year, it will be 2009,” she says. “And if it doesn't happen, agriculture will have a hard time finding workers. A lot is at stake, especially for Southwest agriculture.”

Jacoby says some people in Washington “get it — a lot want to get it done.”

She says the issue of eventually legalizing the 12 million or more immigrants already in the country illegally is “not the sticking point that it was last year; the sticking point remains how to get workers in legally.”

Observers say crucial issues with the proposal under discussion in the Senate include objections from Hispanic organizations, labor unions, and those who object to proposals that would eventually grant legal status to immigrants already in the country illegally.

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