By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

Early next year is a window of opportunity for Congress to act on immigration reform, says a leading national apple lobbyist.

A year ago, Nancy Foster, president and chief executive officer of U.S. Apple Association, said the shift of power to the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C., should create a better climate on several issues, including immigration reform.

This week, she said that's still true, even though the economy, health care, global warming and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan squeezed immigration reform from national agenda in 2009.

"Agriculture is unique in that we have a right-left, liberal-conservative coalition that supports the AgJobs bill," Foster said. "We're positioned to move. The question is whether Congress wants to tackle comprehensive immigration reform or let individual sectors, like agriculture, go alone."

Foster said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the Obama administration's point person on immigration reform, spoke on the topic Nov. 13 at the Center for American Progress.

Napolitano, according to New America Media, said reform is more attainable than in 2007 because of a shift in attitudes and greater enforcement working on the U.S.-Mexico border. She said immigration is down because of this country's poor job market, but that she fears a new wave of illegal immigration when the economy rebounds.

Foster said immigration reform continues to be U.S. Apple's top priority. "It's fundamental to the future of the American apple industry," she said.

Central Washington apple industry leaders and the federal government have estimated 60 to 70 percent of the state's tree fruit pickers and workers are illegal.

Foster said the apple industry needs a stable, reliable, skilled and legal work force. She said she believes immigration reform discussions in Washington, D.C., are "intense and very focused."

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