Editor's note: Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert, a weekly newspaper created by the California Farm Bureau Federation
If immigration reform is to happen, it must be now: That's the message supporters of immigration reform continue to send to members of Congress. Agricultural groups and other organizations say they intend to continue to put pressure on lawmakers to pass comprehensive reform, to follow up on momentum created by a "fly-in" event in Washington, D.C.
"We need to keep telling our representatives the importance of passing real reform. Otherwise, legislators will think its OK if they wait—and if they wait, that could be for four to seven years or more until it is addressed again," said Rayne Pegg, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division. "Legislators are in their districts, so share your stories with the message that reform must happen."
Pegg joined more than 600 business leaders during the Americans for Reform immigration fly-in last week, which included nearly 60 Farm Bureau members and leaders from 14 states. Pegg spent the day talking to congressional representatives about the importance of a reformed agricultural immigration program, and about continued labor shortages reported by farmers through initial results of a CFBF survey.
"Congressmen Jeff Denham and David Valadao understand the need for working across the aisle to get something done that allows those currently working in agriculture to continue to work in agriculture and remain in the country, as well as create a visa program that works in the real world of farming," Pegg said. "They both are moving the discussion forward in their party. We need more members like Denham and Valadao who understand the realities and the human aspect of this issue."
Valadao, R-Hanford, announced the day following the fly-in that he supports a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by House Democrats last month. Denham, R-Turlock, was the first Republican to express support for the bill as a co-sponsor.
"Addressing immigration reform in the House cannot wait," Valadao said. "I am serious about making real progress and will remain committed to doing whatever it takes to repair our broken immigration system."
Denham also discussed the need to act by the end of the year.
"We can't afford any more delays," Denham said. "We are a nation of immigrants, but today, our broken system has failed to secure the border, enforce our current laws and help us to attract the best and brightest who want to come and contribute to the greatness of America."
The comprehensive bill by House Democrats largely mirrors a Senate bill passed in June, although with changes to border-security provisions. House Republican leaders have spoken in favor of a piecemeal approach that prioritizes border security. The House Judiciary Committee has marked up a series of smaller bills that would set up an electronic employment verification system, add more high-skilled visas and bring in more temporary workers for agriculture, among other policy changes. However, none of the House immigration bills has come up for a floor vote.
Immigration reform advocates said they hope enough momentum will be created to have immigration reform addressed before Thanksgiving. If not, the fear is that midterm election politics will stop any progress on comprehensive reform.
CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little said it's "vital" for Congress to address immigration reform this fall.
"If they don't, there may not be another window of political opportunity until the second term of President Obama's successor, and that's eight years away," Little said. "That's another eight years of trying to get along with a broken system that doesn't address the needs of farmers or farmworkers."
Little, who also serves as chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, noted that it's impossible to predict how the next presidential administration will approach immigration law and immigration reform. An aggressive stance, he said, could lead to "even more aggressive auditing of agricultural employers" as enforcement agencies seek to deport employees who present legal-appearing documents even though they have entered the United States illegally.
"Anyone who's been through that process can tell you what a disaster that is," he said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation joined in urging Congress to pass an agricultural labor program that provides both short- and long-term stability.
"It's a way to keep our experienced workforce, while making sure we have access to a legal workforce through a streamlined and flexible guestworker program in the future," AFBF President Bob Stallman said. "Immigration reform is critical for the agricultural industry. Many farmers rely on an immigrant labor force and without reform, growers will begin to plant less labor-intensive crops or go off shore.
"Simply put, either we import our labor or we import our food," Stallman said.