(Jan. 8) President Bush’s decision to make immigration a spotlight issue in an election year should help U.S. lawmakers advance reform of guest worker laws for agriculture, most industry sources believe.

Drawing fire from both ends of the political spectrum, Bush on Jan. 7 outlined the administration’s principles of immigration.

Immigration reform is a volatile political issue. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, Washington, D.C., estimates there are between 8 to 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S., but some think that number may be as many as 20 million.

The federation estimates there are 500,000 to 800,000 illegal farm workers in the U.S.

Conservatives and anti-immigration lawmakers were critical of the Bush plan to give legal status to millions of workers in the country illegally. They charged the approach would invite a new wave of immigration and drive down wages.

Meanwhile, some immigration proponents and labor groups said the proposal was politically motivated and will lead to exploitation of foreign workers.

However, agriculture leaders were consistent in their praise for Bush’s decision to elevate the issue, which had been largely ignored since Sept. 11, 2001.

“We are really grateful President Bush made it into a national debate,” said Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers

Like Hughes, Robert Guenther, vice president of government relations for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., was present for Bush’s address at the White House.

Guenther said he believes Bush will be receptive to the type of reform sought by agricultural interests in the AgJobs bill, which was introduced in September with bipartisan support.

“The bottom line is that immigration reform is something that has to happen because the current situation is untenable,” added Mike Stuart, president of the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., agreed the focus of the coming months should be creating workable and enforceable immigration reform.

During the Jan. 7 address, Bush noted that 14% of the U.S. work force is foreign born.

Bush said immigration laws do not work and that many employers turn to the illegal labor market.

“Workers who seek only to earn a living end up in the shadows of American life — fearful, often abused and exploited,” he said.

Bush favors matching willing foreign workers to U.S. employers in a guest worker program.

However, he said his principles do not include amnesty, or a clear path to citizenship, for undocumented workers.

“Granting amnesty encourages the violation of our laws and perpetuates illegal immigration,” he said.

Bush has not indicated whether he supports the AgJobs bill, which does offer an adjustment of status for previously undocumented workers.

AgJobs — the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003 — 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.

Still, Guenther said many of the principles Bush put forward Jan. 7 are consistent with the AgJobs bill.

“I think the AgJobs proposal is in most respect in line with what the president is asking for,” added Austin Perez, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C.

Perez said the AgJobs bill is further ahead in the legislative process than other immigration reform efforts. Bush will not likely get everything he wants, Perez said.

Hughes noted the AgJobs bill has 80 co-sponsors in the House and 50 in the Senate. While Bush’s vision for guest workers goes beyond agriculture, she said the AgJobs bill is “primed and ready to go” if Bush is serious about achieving results.

Hughes acknowledged the immigration debate will inflame passions and rhetoric, but she said the support of Bush in reform efforts will be a big advantage.

“We really see this as helping us,” she said.

Hearings are expected on immigration reform in early February in the Senate, she said.

One labor consultant was skeptical of the resources the government could devote to meaningful immigration reform.

“If (Bush) could have exactly as he said it, it would be a good thing,” said Dan Bremer, president of AgWorks Inc., Lake Park, Ga.

Without many more federal employees processing information and checking the credentials of foreign workers applying for a temporary worker program, Bremer believes the government would be overwhelmed.

Still, he said reform is needed. Growers who try to use a legal work force with the H2-A program pay their workers $7.49 per hour in Alabama, while neighboring farms who use illegal aliens pay only $5.15-6 per hour and never face enforcement actions.

He predicted the lack of government enforcement of immigration laws may lead to greater numbers of lawsuits brought by employees and rival companies under the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations statutes.

In 1996, Congress added illegal immigration to the list of activities that could be subject to a lawsuit under RICO.

Meanwhile, Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz., said successful immigration reform could create more competition for labor between U.S. and Mexican farmers.

“It will be a big unknown going into the future,” he said.

Mexico’s farmers in Sinaloa and Sonora in northern Mexico rely on migrant labor from the poorer southern states of Mexico.