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Immigration plan includes guest worker program, key to floral trade

After months of intense negotiations, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. Senators announced a sweeping immigration bill April 18 that includes a guest worker visa program vital to the floral and agricultural industries. The 844-page bill is designed to secure the border, allow foreign workers into the country while requiring employers to verify their legal status, and put 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship.

The news conference unveiling the bill was attended by veterans of past failed efforts at reform, including a 2007 bill pushed by President George W. Bush that collapsed due to a ferocious public backlash and opposition from special interest groups. At the April 18 event, united in support of the bill, were traditional opponents from big business and labor, conservative groups and liberal groups. Polls indicated majority public support for the idea.

“A good first step, though I’m always suspicious about prospects of getting anything done in this Congress,” said Mark Thompson, general manager of Hiawatha Corp. in Shelton, WA, speaking of the proposed legislation. “The Senate is trying to do the right thing,” was the assessment of David Self of Wyld West Annuals Inc. of Loxahatchee, FL. “We’ve jumped a hurdle and made a positive progress, but there’s still a lot of unknowns, particularly in the U.S. House.”

“Agriculture is among Florida’s largest industries. This agreement significantly advances the goal of ensuring nursery and landscape industry employers have access to a legal, secure and stable workforce,” said Ben Bolusky, chief executive officer of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association in Orlando, FL.

“The bill provides the framework for new, flexible and market-based guest worker visa programs that can be much more responsive to the needs of both employers and workers, especially nursery growers.” he said in an email statement. “FNGLA will support this framework throughout the legislative process, working with members of Florida’s congressional delegation to ensure any final legislation reflects the goals and intent of this framework agreement.”

“There’s a lesson to be learned here — that we can make progress if everyone is willing to give up a little bit and compromise so that we can get something done,” said Lin Schmale, senior director of governmental relations for SAF. “I hope Congress learns from that.” SAF has been lobbying for immigration reform for 20 years she said, most recently at its Congressional Action Days in March. “Our volunteers can feel proud, giving a key issue a timely push at a critical moment.”

The guest worker visa program would have two options: a portable program allowing workers to move from employer to employer as migrant and seasonal workers and a contract visa program for workers and employers who want to enter into a contract. The proposed new visa program could start admitting up to 200,000 permanent, low-skilled workers by 2020, based on economic conditions and the availability of American workers.

Randel Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which developed parts of the proposal with the AFL-CIO labor union, said in the April 5 New Yorks Times that it offered “a streamlined process for employers to register job openings for temporary foreign workers, while still ensuring that American workers get first crack at every job.”

The overhaul would be the first major change in immigration law since Ronald Reagan was president. It includes four background checks as immigrants move toward citizenship, tightens the rules on employment verification and includes new ways to prevent false use of Social Security numbers. It has an entry-exit system to monitor traffic at borders and ports.

Backers of the bill, who include President Obama, have indicated they will try to pass it in the next six weeks. The eight senators who introduced the bill are Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York, and Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida.

In mid-March more than 100 floral industry members from 25 states took part in 140 meetings in congressional offices as part of the industry’s largest federal grassroots lobbying effort. The event, the 33rd Annual Society of American Florists Congressional Action Days, highlighted four key issues for the floral industry, including immigration reform.