(May 9) The stake the produce industry has in the immigration reform debate was a key topic at United 2006, at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

During the May 6 education session “The Impact of Agricultural Immigration Reform on the Produce Industry,” experts explained how the produce industry can make its concerns heard.

Session moderator Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., said he hopes an immigration reform bill beneficial to agriculture will pass this year.

United supports the AgJobs legislation included in Senate’s version of the bill. AgJobs would allow illegal immigrants already in the U.S. a chance to earn legalization if they continue to work in agriculture.

“The policy is there to be passed, but the political will to do so is not,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult to take the politics out of this.”

Kelly Hunt, manager of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned that there’s a lot at stake for all business.

“Immigration helps cause and fuel job growth,” she said, adding that many industries, like produce, depend on the work force provided by immigration.

Any immigration reform bill that’s passed should strike a balance between border security concerns and economic needs because businesses need immigrant workers, Hunt said.

Perhaps no one is more aware of that need than those in the produce industry.

Maureen Torrey Marshall, vice president of Elba, N.Y.-based Torrey Farms Inc. and incoming United chairwoman, said that of her company’s 180 year-round employees, 75% are Hispanic. She said she’s “scared every day” by the possibility of raids, even though Torrey Farms does all it can to hire documented workers. It’s imperative, she said, that the produce industry speak out to let lawmakers know the vital importance of an effective and fair guest worker program.

Marshall said the time between now and Memorial Day is the only chance this year to pass the Senate compromise bill. The best thing for those in the industry to do is e-mail or fax their legislators, she said.

Some lawmakers may not be aware that if a solution is not passed soon, on Oct. 1 a House bill will take effect that calls for “expedited removal” of illegal immigrants apprehended by authorities. Currently, those immigrants are given a notice to appear in court, but the order is not enforced.

“This time, (the immigrants) are not going to be given a letter,” Marshall said. “They’re going to be detained, put on a plane and sent home.”