(March 17) More than 300 produce and agricultural leaders from 33 states came to Washington, D.C., on March 15, making a case for immigration reform that doesn’t leave out farmworkers.

While not producing any instant victories, the visits from produce growers in the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform will be ringing in the ears of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee as its members wrestle with immigration reform and provisions for agricultural workers at least through the end of March.

The House passed enforcement-focused immigration legislation, H.R. 4437, last year. Agriculture advocates say the bill could result in the loss of 70% or more of the agricultural work force because it requires status verification before workers can be hired, and most produce workers are undocumented.

The March on the Hill event by the coalition featured visits to about 150 congressional offices on March 15, said Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C. Visits also occurred on the day preceding the rally and later in the week, he said.

“It was wonderful turnout,” Guenther said. That high turnout helps to reinforce the importance of agriculture in the immigration debate, he said.

The coalition also held a press conference at the Upper Senate Park on the grounds of Capitol Hill. A news release from the coalition noted that rally attendees staged a farmers market and handed out U.S.-grown produce. The produce was a reminder, the news release said, of what the U.S. could lose if legislation is passed that doesn’t provide for the needs of agriculture.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and a Capitol Hill advocate for agriculture-friendly immigration reform, was one of several members of Congress to address the rally.

Craig said Congress “can and must” deal with border security and workplace needs at the same time.

BANKRUPTING VERSION

Maureen Torrey Marshall, chairwoman-elect of United and co-owner of Torrey Farms Inc., Elba, N.Y., told the rally that the House version of immigration reform would bankrupt thousands of American farms and increase imports.

“We’d be outsourcing farm jobs and endangering our food supply,” she said in the coalition news release.

The coalition proposes overhauling the H-2A temporary agriculture worker program and allowing undocumented farmworkers already in the U.S. a chance to earn legalization.

“We’re not talking about amnesty or allowing foreigners to take advantage of our welfare system,” said Craig Regelbrugge, senior director of government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, Washington, D.C.

“We’re talking about plugging the holes in our borders and at the same time protecting U.S. farmers and consumers,” Regelbrugge said in the release.

Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, Washington, D.C., said the rally benefited from participation from many groups around the country, including United, the American Nursery & Landscape Association, the California Farm Bureau, the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Citrus Mutual and others.

Hughes said March 16 the Senate Judiciary Committee was marking up immigration legislation in March. Some members of the committee want more time to put together compromise legislation that would include a guest worker program for agriculture.

Hughes said the rally and other lobbying efforts have stressed the need for a guest worker program and provisions for undocumented workers already in the country.

She said agricultural employers understand that electronic verification of worker status is coming, and that reality won’t leave any room for undocumented workers in agriculture.

UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS

Hughes said a sticking point for the Senate may be the treatment of undocumented workers now in the U.S. Many lawmakers resist the idea of amnesty and earned legalization for undocumented workers.

“Senators are trying to figure out a way that people can come forward, go through a background check and return briefly to their home country to file proper documents,” she said.

In any case, an agricultural guest worker program is essential, Hughes said.

“We want to have our borders protected, but we also want to protect the nation’s food supply, and having farm workers is key for the U.S. to grow and produce its own food supply,” she said.

Hughes said senators say they don’t believe an enforcement-only bill would make it through the Senate.

While the Senate Judiciary Committee was given until March 27 to come up with an immigration bill, Hughes said some senators are fighting to get two more weeks to mark up a bill.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wants to allow for two weeks of debate after the bill emerges from committee. Frist wants a bill passed by mid-April.

“That would give the month of May for a conference committee to hammer out differences and for a bill to be on the House and Senate floors for a final vote in June,” she said.

The goal is to have a bill passed by July 4, or the issue may die because of election pressures.

Rally participant Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said in a news release that the fresh produce industry and the nursery industry would lose billions in annual production if immigration policies don’t provide conditions for a stable agriculture work force.