(Feb. 17) Political torpedoes be damned, Sen. Larry Craig is moving full steam ahead to reform U.S. immigration law in a way that will account for the needs of agricultural employers.

Craig, R-Idaho, has taken on critics in his home state of Idaho and prodded Republican leaders in the Senate and the White House to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform.

With eight years of working for immigration reform, Craig has been the key conservative voice in support of the bipartisan Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (informally called AgJobs).

Liberal support for AgJobs from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., illustrates the ideological span of the legislation’s backers.

“He has been dedicated to trying to get something done for the agricultural industry, and he is not flustered at all by the anti-immigration rhetoric,” said Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, Washington, D.C. “He has been the go-to guy.”

Hughes said that while others in Congress have been “running scared” on the immigration issue, Craig has defeated what she claims is anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Craig was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990 and was re-elected in 1996 and 2002.

Craig said although his opponents grab headlines, he is committed to a resolution of the problem.

“Any of us who enter into the immigration debate need to be forewarned that immigration has a lot of critics,” Craig acknowledged Feb. 7.

In fact, the Minuteman Project, Huntington Beach, Calif., organized a rally in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 8. The founder of the group, Jim Gilchrist, called the agricultural guest worker program “tantamount to slave trading” in a Feb. 2 news release.

Despite the vocal opposition, Craig believes the Senate Judiciary Committee will mark up an immigration bill by early May.

“It’s not a question of ‘Do we need to change the law and make it work?’ but ‘We are going to change the law because it doesn’t work,” he said.

Success in immigration policy will be in the form of a three-legged stool, he said. One leg is border enforcement and access, while the second leg is interior control and the third leg is a legal process that will allow guest workers to perform needed jobs in the U.S.

“Do we get there in the end, or do the Tancredos need to demagogue this issue for another year? I don’t know,” Craig said Feb. 7.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has one of the loudest voices against guest worker provisions in immigration reform and spoke at the Feb. 8 Minuteman Rally.

In a Feb. 1 release, Tancredo said Congress passed a blanket amnesty in 1986 on the promise that border security would come later. “We all remember the ’86 bait and switch, and we won’t be fooled again,” he said. Tancredo said there is no way to determine if guest workers are needed until the borders are sealed and the government controls the interior.

GREAT RHETORIC

Craig said the enforcement-only approach is the easiest place for Capitol Hill politicians to go.

“The round-them-up, lock-them-up and throw-them-out attitude doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “It makes great political rhetoric, but that is all it does.”

As surely as border control doesn’t work now, Craig said members of Congress must remember that throwing more money at the border isn’t the cure-all either.

“You can’t build the wall high enough, you can’t arm the border thick enough with people without a law on the other side that qualifies the workers and denies the illegal the right to participate,” he said.

The House passed an enforcement-focused immigration bill in late 2005 and now the Senate will soon consider what its legislation should include.

Craig would like a separate agricultural title in the immigration bill, since agriculture has a different pay scale compared to the construction industry. If agriculture has to pay the same wage rates as builders, American agriculture could face bigger problems than ever, he said.

Some farm lobbyists have urged Craig and other backers of AgJobs to work with a competing immigration reform packaged offered by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

Craig said there are differences in farm labor needs between regions.

“The law has to be broader based agriculturally than the Saxby Chambliss version,” Craig said.

“The old H2A program doesn’t work, period, end of statement, for all but a very few,” he said.

The H2A process can only process 40,000 to 45,000 workers when more than a million workers may be needed to perform similar work, he said.

The internal conflict in agriculture — between those that use the H2A program and those who don’t use the program and pay slightly lower wages — must be bridged, he said.

Another key question in the Senate legislation will be what to do with illegal immigrants who have been working in U.S. agriculture for five to six years. Those workers many times have taken on more oversight responsibility and have a family in the U.S.

Craig wonders if there is a way to treat those workers and their families in what he calls a fair manner.

“Some say no, they entered illegally and they should exit the country and stand in line with the rest,” he said. “That will be part of this debate and part of the law.”