(Dec. 30) Securing a stable and legal agricultural work force for U.S. growers may depend on the ability of supporters of AgJOBS legislation in the House of Representatives to overcome the rhetoric of anti-immigration lawmakers.

That’s the view of Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003, introduced in late September with Republican and Democratic sponsors in both Capitol Hill chambers, would reform the temporary foreign agricultural worker program — H-2A.

“If we have a workable guest worker program, it will limit illegal immigration,” she said.

PERMANENT RESIDENT STATUS

Hughes said the legislation would allow about 500,000 agricultural workers who lack immigration status the opportunity to apply for permanent resident status after working for at least 360 days in agriculture in the next six years.

President Bush threw a wet blanket on granting “blanket amnesty” to millions of illegal immigrants the week of Dec. 15. He said the U.S. needs to have an immigration policy that matches any willing employer to any willing employee. Just days before those remarks by Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said it was important that the U.S. decide what its immigration policy is and then enforce it.

Hughes said the legislation does not represent amnesty.

Undocumented agricultural workers — by some accounts representing 70% of farm labor — will have to continue to be employed in agriculture for several years before they apply for permanent status.

BIPARTISAN SUPPORT

She said she hopes Bush will respect the bipartisan support for the Agjobs bill.

The legislation has 50 co-sponsors in the Senate and 80 co-sponsors in the House, and she said support is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

“We have very strong support but we ran out of time (in 2003),” she said. Wrangling over the appropriations bill took away time from the legislation, but she predicted consideration and markup of the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee by early February.

POSSIBLE PITFALLS

Critics of the AgJOBS bill have stated that the guest worker legalization program will be rife with fraudulent paperwork and could overburden the Department of Homeland Security.

Another agricultural worker reform bill has been put forward by House Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., but Hughes downplayed its chances.

“It is only H-2A reform, and it doesn’t go nearly as far as ours,” she said. The lack of provisions that appeal to Democratic lawmakers dooms Goodlatte’s effort, she said.

“It’s not broad enough to appeal to both sides,” she said.

AgJOBS has the support of farm worker groups and growers, along with myriad immigration rights and church groups, she said.

EARNING THE RIGHT

Under the AgJOBS legislation, workers become eligible for permanent status by showing they have worked in agriculture for 100 days in the 18 months previous to Aug. 31 — before the AgJOBS bill was introduced. Going forward, they must work in agriculture in three of the next six years to apply for permanent residence status.

“You have to earn the right to apply for a green card,” she said. “It’s not automatic at all.”

She said about 500,000 workers would qualify. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and census figures from 2000, 7 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, live in the U.S.

The AgJOBS legislation would mean a growing percentage of farm workers in the H-2A program and a continuing decline in undocumented farm workers.

The H-2A program accounts for just 2% of farm labor.

Hughes said White House support would help move the AgJOBS bill through the House.

Through mid-December, the White House has refrained from explicit endorsements of agricultural worker reform legislation.

Keira Franz, director of legislative affairs for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., said the broad base of support for AgJOBS should pay dividends.

“We will work with all parties to get something done,” she said.