By DAN WHEAT
Many agricultural groups issued laudatory statements about Senate passage of immigration reform, but a key ag lobbyist says he's growing less optimistic daily about any bill passing the House.
"We saw Republicans in the House pay no attention to what the Senate does and no attention to what their leadership does with the Farm Bill," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif.
"Even though Speaker (John) Boehner voted for it his chairmen voted against it," Nassif said, "and I don't think the Farm Bill is as difficult to resolve as immigration."
Others in the Agricultural Workforce Coalition are probably just as concerned as he is, he said.
S. 744 passed 68-32 on June 27.
If bills from both chambers aren't in a conference committee before the August congressional recess, there's a good chance immigration reform will die, Nassif said.
Other issues like budgets and the debt ceiling will overshadow immigration for the rest of the year, and mid-term elections in 2014 make it unlikely anything will happen then, he said.
If immigration reform fails, the exodus of vegetable producers from the American Southwest to Mexico, Latin America, the Middle East, South Africa and China will accelerate, he said.
"If the U.S. wants to be a producing nation and feed its own without having to be dependent on foreign countries that may not like us and use food as a leverage point, immigration reform needs to happen," Nassif said.
Agricultural components of the Senate bill remain unchanged since the bill was introduced, Nassif said.
Key parts are a blue card or temporary legal status for experienced farmworkers and a new agricultural visa program to meet future labor needs, said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Both of those elements are needed and the problem with tying legal status to future votes determining border security, as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and others are talking about, is that it doesn't solve the urgent and immediate need of a shortage of farmworkers, Nassif said.
An effort for a comprehensive bill in the House stalled but a series of bills sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., are beginning to pass the committee. One requires all employers to check their workers' legal status within two years. One involves agricultural workers and another makes illegal immigration a federal crime instead of a civil offense.
Goodlatte's bills contain no temporary legal status but require people "to go back (to Mexico) and become part of our guest worker program," Nassif said. Goodlatte's guest worker plan only allows at-will employment or portability, the ability of workers to move from employer to employer, after guest workers have worked by contract, he said. The Senate bill gives agricultural workers the choice of at-will or contract work at the start, something ag employers and workers want, he said.
However, agricultural differences with Goodlatte can be resolved, Nassif said. "He's prepared to reasonable about that (at-will employment)," he said.
The broader Republican concerns of amnesty, interior enforcement, border security and pathway to citizenship are more problematic issues for a Senate-House agreement, Nassif said.
Asked if she share's Nassif's concern that immigration will not pass the House, the Farm Bureau's Boswell said, "Immigration is a difficult issue. There is an appetite to pass responsible immigration reform in the House but it is apparent it will look different from what was done in the Senate."
It is critical legislation passes the House and meets the Senate bill in conference, she said.
Asked if there is a way to meet House Republicans on securing the border first and still getting temporary ag worker legal status, Boswell said House members understand ag's unique needs and sympathize with industry needs.
"We will continue to work with House members to ensure experienced agricultural workers in undocumented status can continue working in agriculture legally and that a new guest worker program is created to address our future needs," Boswell said.
Joining the American Farm Bureau Federation and Western Growers in issuing laudatory statements about passage of the Senate bill were the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation and United Farm Workers of America.