(May 26) With AgJobs legislation intact, the Senate passed its version of an immigration reform bill May 25 by a vote of 62 to 36.

Momentum from the Senate passage of the comprehensive bill will be leveraged as it moves into a conference committee, said John Farner, director of legislative relations for the Washington, D.C.-based American Nursery & Landscape Association.

The House last year passed an enforcement-focused immigration bill that would open illegal immigrants to felony charges.

Though the timetable is not set, the Senate and House conferees must hammer out a compromise bill.

President Bush has asked for a bill to be on his desk by the August recess, and Farner said Bush’s support may be critical.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn, has named some conference members from the Senate. In total, Farner said the Senate was expected to name 14 Republicans and 12 Democrats to the conference.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a supporter of AgJobs, will be chairman of the conference, Farner said.

Through May 25, the House leadership had yet to announce who it would appoint to the conference, Farner said.

Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, said the conference will be a big challenge in an election year.

“We’ve heard from a couple of the (Florida) Congressional delegation staff, and they said they are getting letters all over the map on this issue,” he said.

Gilmer said increased enforcement at the border and rumors about enforcement within the country are draining the agricultural workforce.

Farner said it would be important to preserve the core components of the Senate bill that are important to agriculture, including the guest worker program of AgJobs and giving illegal immigrants in the U.S. a chance to earn legalization.

He noted that amendments to AgJobs by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., that could have jeopardized bipartisan support were narrowly defeated.