(July 22) Reluctant to stir the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party, the Bush administration has effectively derailed an attempt by more than 60 senators to pass the AgJobs bill this year.

The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJobs bill, is bipartisan legislation that creates a process for earned legalization for undocumented farm workers and also reforms to the agricultural guest worker program.

Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, Austin Perez, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., would not allow AgJobs legislation to be attached to class action reform legislation the Senate was considering earlier in July.

Perez said it is widely believed the White House directed Frist to preclude a vote on AgJobs.

In the end, the class action legislation, a top priority of the business community, was withdrawn because Frist could not get the 60 votes needed to end debate.

TOUGH ODDS:

Perez said the odds were against Senate passage of AgJobs this year, especially since there are few, if any, “must-pass” legislative vehicles that AgJobs could be attached to as an amendment.

“There is only one ‘must-pass’ bill, and that is when they will take up the appropriations bill in September,” he said.

However, he credited Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, for continuing to fight for passage.

If Craig wants to continue to fight, he said Farm Bureau would be with him.

If the Senate does have the opportunity to pass the AgJobs legislation, they will do so convincingly, Perez said.

That might allow for consideration of AgJobs in the House of Representatives, he said.

HOUSE OPPOSITION:

Most political observers believe the AgJobs program faces a tough battle in the House, where Republicans opposed to the earned legalization provision of the AgJobs bill have voiced disapproval.

Monte Lake, a lawyer with McGuiness, Norris & Williams, Washington, D.C., told the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee on July 14 that the companion House bill has 115 co-sponsors.

For their part, administration officials reportedly don’t want to alienate the conservative base of the Republican Party in an election year.

Meanwhile, the stakes for the produce industry continue to escalate.

Lake said that 60% to 80% of agricultural workers provide fraudulent documentation.

If growers repeatedly receive notices from federal officials that Social Security numbers submitted by their employees don’t match federal records, they are exposed to the risk that their workforce could someday be taken away.

Already, immigration opponents are hiring lawyers to bring lawsuits against agriculture employers using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Through that statue, lawsuits may try to hold agricultural employers responsible for depressing the wages of U.S. workers by hiring undocumented workers.