Immigration Update:

Ag secretary stresses reform during state visit

Speaking to family farmers and farm leaders last week at the California Farm Bureau Federation, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he is encouraged by the positive steps made toward national immigration reform and believes a comprehensive, bipartisan bill will emerge from a House-Senate negotiations process.

Johanns’ visit to the Farm Bureau was the last stop during a two-day swing through California to rouse support for comprehensive immigration reform, an approach favored by the president

A House-Senate conference committee will soon meet to reconcile differences between a House bill that focuses on border enforcement and a Senate version that combines improved border security with reforms to guest worker programs.

Johanns said a comprehensive approach will assure border security.

“How are you going to have effective border control if you don’t have a comprehensive plan?” he asked. “How are you to have effective border control if you say to California farmers, ‘We know if you don’t get labor, you’re not going to get your crops in, but so what?’ Is that effective?

“I don’t think you get good border enforcement unless you deal with the issue of workers and their ability to come back and forth between here and their home country,” Johanns added. “We’ll do everything we can to move that debate down the road.”

The Senate bill includes a special guest worker program that specifically deals with on-farm employment. Known as AgJOBS, the program also would allow an estimated 1.5 million immigrant farmworkers the chance to earn legal permanent residency after a lengthy waiting period and other requirements. Some have criticized this approach as giving amnesty to law breakers.

But Johanns said what the Senate package offers is a path to citizenship with some strict requirements, including payment of back taxes and fines for being in the United States illegally.

“Amnesty is when somebody who has the power walks in and says, ‘All sins forgiven. Everything is fine,’” he said. “This is not amnesty. This is not somebody waving a magic wand.”

At OG Packing in Stockton, Johanns got a firsthand look at some of the challenges California producers face during their height of production. Tom Gotelli, whose family farms cherries and operates the packing facility, led the secretary through the plant where workers were washing, sorting and packaging the very labor-intensive crop.

“There’s no better example of the need for immigration reform than right here at this facility,” Johanns said to a group of reporters after touring the packinghouse. “This plant is here because of labor. You take the labor out of the equation, and you’ve got a very serious problem. But that could be said about anybody who is in this business.”

He noted that while immigration reform is a big issue to California, “it’s not an issue unique to California.” As former governor of Nebraska, Johanns said he saw how the immigration issue affected beef producers in a state that does not border another country.

“They’re very significantly impacted,” he said. “You impact that labor force and all of a sudden you have to slowdown in the amount of meat you process, and that slowdown goes right to the cattle yard and you have a cattle guy out there who’s saying, ‘What’s happening to my prices? I can’t sell my cattle.’ So it’s all across agriculture.”

Johanns urged farmers and ranchers to continue to engage in the debates and to let their voices be heard. He said it is their personal stories that are moving this issue forward.

“Tell your story,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to go up to the Hill and say this is important to farmers and cite statistics. I’ll do all I can to help, but the best person to tell the story is you because your livelihood depends upon it and you have the personal experience of having been there. So don’t give up. We’re further along than we were 12 years ago. Hopefully this year we’ll be further along and get this problem solved.”

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

California Farm Bureau Federation.