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Feinstein says AgJOBS is less about immigration and more about helping economy

by Joan Murphy | May 21, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) reintroduced her AgJOBS bill May 14 to fix the broken H-2A seasonal worker program and help struggling agricultural employers retain a stable, legal workforce to produce the nation's food supply.

"The central issue here is not immigration. It is about protecting and preserving the American economy," Sen. Feinstein said in a May 14 press statement.

"With an inadequate supply of workers, farmers from Maine to California and from Washington state to Georgia have watched their produce rot and their farms lay fallow over the years," she said. "This legislation would help to ensure a consistent, reliable agriculture work force to ensure that farmers and growers never again lose their crops because of a lack of workers."

Similar to past bills, the new, 105-page AgJOBS bill has two parts.

The first part would create a five-year pilot program to identify undocumented agricultural workers and legalize the immigration status for those who have been working in the United States for the past two years or more. The second part would reform the H-2A visa system to provide farmers and growers with a legal path to bring guest workers to harvest their crops, she said.

Sixteen senators have signed on as co-sponsors: Chuck Schumer (D-NY); Jeff Bingaman (D-NM); Barbara Boxer (D-CA); Maria Cantwell (D-WA); Robert Casey (D-PA); Chris Dodd (D-CT); Russ Feingold (D-WI); Ted Kauffman (D- DE); Edward Kennedy (D-MA); John Kerry (D-MA); Herb Kohl (D-WA); Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Carl Levin (D-MI); Joe Lieberman (I-CT); Patty Murray (D-WA); and Bill Nelson (D-FL).

U.S. Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Adam Putnam (R-FL) introduced companion legislation in the House. Rep. Berman and Sen. Feinstein hold senior positions with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

If Congress does not act quickly to pass AgJOBS, the United States stands to lose $5 billion to $9 billion in sales to foreign competition in the next year or two, said Ms. Feinstein. California lost nearly $1 billion between 2005 and 2006, and it is estimated that the state will lose $1.7 billion in sales in the next year.

Even with the economic downturn, agricultural employers have not had luck attracting U.S. workers to the unique and physically demanding jobs in the fields, said Joseph Young, executive director of the New England Apple Council. People who have lost jobs will not work in agriculture as long as they receive their weekly unemployment checks, he said. "We're losing farms."

The Bush administration had made changes to the H-2A program, and the Obama administration is seeking more changes to the temporary worker program.

"It's like a see-saw for us," said Mr. Young. "We need one stable [H-2A] program to know what you're dealing with."

But the Obama administration's move to back away from high-profile immigration raids and embrace employer audits is good news, he added. More than 200 national and state agricultural organizations have signed on in support of AgJOBS, including Western Growers Association and the United Fresh Produce Association.

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh, circulated letters in support of the measure that explained the plight of the fresh produce industry, which is faced with conflicting employment laws for foreign workers.

"These conflicts have led to legal jeopardy for employers and laborers, shortages of workers, reduced economic activity and degrading competitiveness in the global marketplace," he said.