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Texas vegetable farmer disgusted at immigration reform stalemate

Bernie Thiel couldn't hide his frustration the day after Congress failed to move an immigration reform bill that he and others in agriculture hoped would develop a workable solution to a labor shortage problem.

Thiel grows vegetables at Lubbock, Texas, and relies on immigrant labor to harvest perishable crops.

The day after the immigration reform failed in Congress he had a crew and a half working. “I'm short two-and-half crews,” he said. “And I am disgusted.”

Thiel has tried to find local workers, but says response to advertisements has been almost nil, and those who did respond didn't last long at the hard labor.

“I'm missing about 10 of my regular crew members and am suffering losses because of it.”

Current programs are not working, he says.

“A friend in Arizona tried to get labor through the H2A program. He needed 50 and he got 15. Others couldn't get in.”

Anyone who has ever been picked up as an illegal and sent back is no longer considered eligible through the H2A program, Thiel notes. “That's just politics — and it's unrealistic. We need workers.”

Legislators' failures will hurt agriculture, he says, especially segments like vegetable and fruit production, that depend heavily on manual labor.

“Congress got caught up with political correctness. The reason 98 percent of illegal immigrants are here is to work. Congress was trying to make citizens out of them and trying to determine how many family members they could bring over. They got too creative.”

The problem goes back a long way.

“The federal government has never enforced the law,” Thiel says. “They never really busted anyone for hiring illegal workers, and now we have a huge mess. Things are just out of kilter.”

He worries that, even if Congress comes up with 11th hour legislation, it might include so much bureaucratic red tape the program would be too difficult to manage.

Pronouncing the benediction on immigration reform may be a bit premature, however.

“Sure, we can still get a bill done,” says Billy Moore, Texas Employers for Immigration Reform, Washington, D.C.

About a dozen senators are making efforts to discuss the immigration issue and considering amendments, he notes.

“They're giving anyone interested a shot to change the bill,” Moore says. “President Bush is working with the Republican Caucus and Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he'll agree to bring the bill back if they can get a consensus on amendments.”

Moore says three windows of opportunity exist to get an immigration bill done this year. The last would be just after the July 4 recess, around the July 9-10.

“The next 30 days will be critical. If nothing happens within that period, the issue gets cold and senators move on to other things.”

Moore says he and others with Texas ties are working hard to get a bill to the president's desk.

“We're contacting our two senators and encouraging them to finish the job. There is still a good opportunity to bring the bill back. And if they get an agreement on amendments, the likelihood of Senate passage is very good.”

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