Oct 29, 2003

Passage of comprehensive agricultural labor reform has become the top legislative priority for organizations that represent various interests in the floriculture industry. With the bipartisan introduction in September of The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 (AgJOBS), these organizations believe that the industry finally may be nearing a solution to long-running labor problems. However, the vocal support of growers, retailers, florists and others in the industry is critical to ensuring quick passage of the measure.

The nursery industry is “on a slippery slope,” said Craig Regelbrugge, ANLA’s senior director of government relations and co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. Increasingly, commercial growers have looked to immigrant labor to fill their work force needs, he explained, and by some estimates, as many as 70 percent of these workers are not legally authorized to work in this country. “Recent raids at Wal-Mart underscore that INS enforcement is picking up,” he noted, “and the nursery industry is especially at risk. Commercial growers are an easy target, with fixed places of business and long seasons of activity.”

Sudden loss of workers can be particularly difficult for commercial nursery growers, noted Lin Schmale, senior director of Government Relations at the Society of American Florists (SAF). “The employer may have made a significant investment in training workers for complex and specialized tasks,” she said.

“Supply chain issues” result in growers’ labor problems impacting retailers, florists and others in the industry, Regelbrugge emphasized. Florists know that if there aren’t enough legal workers, and there’s a raid, customers’ orders will go unfilled.

AgJOBS represents a “moment of opportunity,” Regelbrugge said. Main sponsors of the Senate measure, S. 1645, are Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), while Reps. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) are lead sponsors of H.R. 3142. In addition to the lead sponsors, S. 1645 has more than 30 cosponsors, with many other Senators indicating they would vote in favor of the bill, although not listed as a cosponsor, Regelbrugge said. As of October 28, H.R. 3142 had 53 cosponsors.

Time To Act Is Now

“This legislation really needs to pass this year,” Schmale stressed. She characterized the legislation as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” with both industry and labor groups supporting the bills’ provisions. Passage before Congress recesses – which will occur in only a few weeks – is critical, both Regelbrugge and Schmale emphasized. Once Congress reconvenes after the holidays, members’ attention will likely be diverted to the 2004 elections. Furthermore, the anti-immigrant movement has a loud voice and clout in Washington, Regelbrugge noted, adding that AgJOBS “represents the coming together of traditional adversaries in agriculture, in pursuit of a common good that serves the interests of workers and small and family businesses; it is a conservative, middle-ground approach.”

Recognizing that immigrant labor is “part of the fabric of the industry,” Regelbrugge urged all those in the floriculture industry to “take 10 minutes and send letters” to their senators and representatives in Congress. “People sometimes think they are just a voice in the wilderness, and that’s not the case,” Schmale said. “Voices of constituents make the difference in passing legislation like this.”

Both ANLA and SAF have sample letters to congress on their Web sites. Given the importance of the issue and time urgency, ANLA has established a temporary site for non-members (http://capwiz.com/anla/home/. SAF members should click on “members only” part of SAF’s site (www.safnow.org), and follow instructions. Both sites enable the user to enter a zip code and locate the appropriate senator or representative.

The sample letters must be personalized by the sender, Schmale stressed, by including the member’s name and as much information about the member’s business as desired. The sample letters can be directly E-mailed from the sites or can be downloaded and faxed or E-mailed from another site. ANLA and SAF ask that people who do receive a response to their letters fax these responses to ANLA or SAF.

Reform Details

Essentially, AgJOBS would enable farm and nursery workers who lack proper work authorization to earn permanent legal status through prospective work and lawful behavior. Specifically, temporary resident status would be granted to applicants who can demonstrate that they have worked 100 or more days in a 12-consecutive-month period during the 18 months ending on August 31, 2003. During the period of temporary resident status, the worker can travel abroad, reenter the United States and work in nonagricultural occupations, so long as agricultural work requirements are met in the next three to six years. The worker may apply for permanent resident status after working at least 360 days in agricultural employment during the six-year period ending on August 31, 2009.

The bills also address the immigration and work status of a worker’s spouse and children.

The measures also modify the current H-2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural worker program. According to ANLA, these provisions present an incremental reform opportunity that allows Congress and federal agencies to gain the experience and tools they will need in ultimately implementing broader reforms.

In addition to ANLA and SAF, the OFA, the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the United Farm Workers Union support the measures. The bills also have received the endorsement of a number of major newspapers.

Summaries of the AgJOBS bill can be found on the Web sites of ANLA (www.anla.org) and the NCAE (www.ncaeonline.org).

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