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Sens. Feinstein and Craig re-introduce Ag JOBS

Bob Krauter Capital Press California Editor 1/10/07

The campaign to solve growing labor shortages on many farms in the West renews today when U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, re-introduce their AgJOBS legislation.

The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act would restructure and reform the current H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. It would also allow undocumented workers to remain in the U.S. if they meet a set of conditions.

Scott Gerber, a spokesman for Sen. Feinstein said re-introducing the bill signals the start of the debate in the Senate where passage seems certain.

"This passed the Senate last year and we think the votes are there to pass it again. We think that it is even more critical now than ever before," Gerber said. "What this would do is establish a pilot program for five years where those who have been working in this country and want to continue working in this country would have legal status."

For years, major farm groups have advocated reform of the H-2A program. Jack King, manager of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the time to right to finally achieve reform.

"We are pleased that Sens. Feinstein and Craig are willing to act as soon as they are. We feel that it is important to get on with this. It will give some certainty to labor supplies," King said. "We just can't go on the way we are. We have to have some legal method to bring workers to jobs that obviously other people have shown they are not willing to take."

King said labor shortages are becoming more pronounced and severe in California. Currently in the Imperial Valley and in Yuma, Arizona, farmers are paying up to $25 an hour for workers and they still can't find adequate supplies, he said.

"So it is clear that we need a system to bring foreign workers in to harvest our crops," King said. "What's important is that we get on with it as soon as possible and that we don't go through another year of short labor supplies."

Farm groups came up short on Capitol Hill in passing AgJOBS last year as House Republicans failed to act on comprehensive immigration reform. With the Democratic takeover of the House in November and a new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, from California, King hopes for a more favorable climate.

"We think that the current leadership is more disposed to this problem. That was the problem this past year. Some members did not want to deal with it. Their constituents were demanding tighter borders and not legalization," King said. "We think the current leadership is more open on that. We're optimistic this is the time to get the job done."

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, shares that optimism.

"We have in mind to reinvigorate the immigration reform issue and specifically, by re-introducing AgJOBS, we hope to bring the whole concept of comprehensive immigration reform to the forefront," Bedwell said. "But if there is a reluctance to proceed with comprehensive, I think most observers would see that agriculture has proven its case specifically and if we were to move ahead with a pilot program like AgJOBS, that would tend to have a lot of bipartisan support."

Passage of AgJOBS could not come too soon for the state's labor-intensive tree fruit, grape and vegetable sectors. Tim Chelling, a spokesman for Western Growers, said his organization is hopeful 2007 will be the year that immigration reform will finally be achieved.

"We are extremely hopeful that this may be is the year that the industry gets the stable workforce that its been striving to achieve for years," Chelling said. "There is a golden window of opportunity here. It is high time - the workers deserve it, the farmers deserve it and the nation deserves it."

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