The Importance Of AgJOBS

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Just before Memorial Day, the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2009 – AgJOBS — was introduced in the House and Senate. First proposed in late 2003, the legislation is the result of a long negotiation between employer interests and labor groups who came together when it became clear that each side had enough power to defeat the other but not enough to win.

USApple has been there since the beginning of AgJOBS and so have a strong majority of apple-friendly Members of Congress. AgJOBS passed the Senate in 2006 as part of a larger immigration reform bill that never became law. It was also folded into the comprehensive immigration reform bill of 2007 which ultimately did not pass.

Apple leaders from coast-to-coast worked tirelessly in 2007 to pass the bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and others and backed by the Bush Administration. That legislation was killed by both “anti-amnesty” sentiment on the political “right” and opposition to non-agricultural guest worker programs from the political “left.”

So here we go again. AgJOBS has been introduced and USApple and other members of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR) are working to build the House and Senate cosponsor list and urging our industry leaders to send letters and make phone calls to their Members of Congress in support of the legislation.

But will this year be any different? Over the past few years, some apple leaders have asked, why stick with AgJOBS as the solution to our labor problems? Perhaps it made sense in the past but “that was then and this is now.”

On the contrary, AgJOBS’ and its carefully negotiated agreement, that has held for six years through Republican and Democratic control of Congress and the White House, is now more important and more relevant than ever. Over one-hundred state, regional and national agriculture organizations have endorsed the bill as has the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a number of conservative, pro-business organizations including Grover Norquist’s, “Americans for Tax Reform.” The legislation also has the backing of the United Farm Workers, and hundreds of other labor unions – including the Teamsters – worker advocate and faith based organizations.

AgJOBS has this strong and broad support because it offers key provisions for both workers and employers. Under the “blue card” system experienced farm workers would be eligible to earn legal status over time subject to strict conditions, including a multi-year future commitment to agricultural work.

The bill also makes major reforms to the H-2A guest-worker program, a critical component for employers. The legislation would bring down the cost of the program, allow more flexibility, and streamline and expedite the application and certification process. These reforms are written into AgJOBS so that current and future Administration’s can’t rewrite the rules of the program.

That’s what is happening right now. The Obama Administration has suspended significant reforms to the H-2A program made by the outgoing Bush Administration in January. USApple and hundreds of other agricultural employer organizations and H-2A users submitted comments to DOL earlier this year opposing the suspension. Our comments focused on the need for clarity and certainty in the program, arguing that changing the rules midway through the year and “without notice and the ability to adjust plans and contracts will cause substantial financial loss.” A group of H-2A users is expected to file suit and seek an injunction blocking the DOL from going through with the suspension arguing that it will cause irreparable harm to users. Agricultural employers need a guest-worker program with a clear set of rules that won’t change from one Administration to the next.

During the campaign, candidate-Obama said that he would like to pass comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office. Reform isn’t likely this year but President Obama has scheduled a White House Summit with key Congressional leaders and would like to see a general framework for reform developed this year. Senate Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has begun holding a series of hearings on the issue, and is hosting meetings and dinners with his Senate colleagues in an effort to find common ground.

As a new comprehensive immigration bill is developed, AgJOBS is the only employment-based bipartisan immigration agreement intact today. It is also the only guest-worker proposal that has the support of the unions and worker advocates. The broader guest-worker provisions, beyond agriculture, in the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill proved to be a major sticking point between business and labor and that was in a strong economy with low unemployment rates.

AgJOBS is supported by the House and Senate Immigration Subcommittee Chairs who will play a significant role in drafting any new legislation. President Obama and many of his top appointees understand the unique labor needs of agriculture. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood all cosponsored AgJOBs when they were in Congress. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano supported AgJOBS while Arizona governor.

Many components of a comprehensive bill still need to be resolved through negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the White House, business and labor. Right now, the general business community is fighting against a broad call for “future flows” of workers to be decided by a Federal Commission.  There is no cap on the current H-2A program and USApple has fought to ensure there won’t be in the future. Due to the unique employer/labor agreement in AgJOBS , agriculture is outside of the Commission debate.

It’s difficult to predict when Congress and the Administration will come to an agreement on a comprehensive immigration reform bill or when resolution of this crisis will finally occur. But what is clear is that the agriculture is one of the least controversial components of the debate.

The AgJOBS compromise has held through Republican and Democrat controlled Congresses and Administrations. As a result, we are in the unique position of having a bipartisan bill to support rather than negotiating new legislation in a political and economic climate now less favorable to business. That is why AgJOBS is still the right answer for the apple industry. It’s a good bill whose time has come.

Nancy Foster is president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association in Vienna, VA.

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