(May 19) In an effort to mend fences with conservatives and perhaps signal a willingness to build a fence in certain areas to control illegal immigration from Mexico, President Bush traveled to Yuma, Ariz., May 18.

Bush left no time to meet with agricultural leaders in the region, however.

“He’s mainly doing the border,” said Doug Mellon, owner of Doug Mellon Farms Inc., Yuma. “I don’t know of anybody in agriculture involved with (the agenda).”

Phil Townsend, owner of Sunland Chemical Co., Yuma, said labor remains a burning issue in the region.

All the labor intensive field work — weeding, thinning, harvesting — are susceptible to shortages, he said.

As President Bush visited the border near Yuma and called on enforcement agents of the Customs and Border Patrol, the U.S. Senate continued to debate amendments to a comprehensive immigration bill.

Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers, said May 18 that the Senate was expected to debate amendments until May 23 and then vote.

CHAMBLISS CHALLENGE

Hughes said one significant challenge to the comprehensive immigration bill may be an amendment from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. While an English language amendment was being debated well into the afternoon of May 18, Chambliss was expected to offer an amendment May 18 that would seek to change an AgJobs wage provision from an adverse effect wage rate to a prevailing wage rate.

If Chambliss is successful with his amendment, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was expected to offer an amendment that would cap the H2A program at an unrealistically low level of 90,000, Hughes said.

That represents only about 5% of necessary workers for agriculture, she said. Currently, the H2A program uses about 30,000 to 50,000 workers, but it would be relied on much more heavily if comprehensive reform passes.

For an agricultural industry already facing occasional shortages of both legal and illegal workers, Hughes said the Durbin amendment would cause major shortages in agriculture.

She said the Senate likely will find the votes to defeat the Chambliss amendment and then the path would be clear for passage of the comprehensive package on May 23.

She noted Chambliss said publicly that his only reason for offering the prevailing wage amendment — generally seen by growers as a more favorable option than the adverse effect wage rate — is to derail the entire AgJobs package.

Hughes said President Bush has weighed in forcefully in May about the need for a comprehensive immigration package, even as he has raised the possibility of using National Guard soldiers to help patrol the border and signaled his support for a 370-mile fence to seal off areas of the U.S. Mexico border that are popular crossing points.

If the Senate passes a bill by May 23, Hughes said the focus will shift to what will emerge from a conference between the House and the Senate.