On Tuesday April 19, 2005 the U.S. Senate took two procedural votes on competing measures to deal with the agricultural labor crisis. If a "supermajority" of 60 Senators had voted to invoke "cloture" on either measure, the Senate would have proceeded with full consideration of the bills as amendments to the Iraq supplemental spending bill.
One of the amendments was S.359, the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2005, or AgJOBS, authored by Senator Larry Craig (R-ID). AgJOBS attracted a majority of the Senate on a 53 to 45 vote. A competing proposal offered by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) was rejected by the Senate on a vote of 21 to 77.
"We consider the AgJOBS vote extraordinary," said Luawanna Hallstrom, CEO of the nation's largest vine-ripe tomato producer and co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. "The vote demonstrates that AgJOBS has majority support in the U.S. Senate. We know that several strong supporters decided that the military spending bill should not be used as a vehicle for immigration reform; we'll have their votes in the future" Hallstrom added.
The Senate vote was widely seen as an affirmation that the contentious immigration issue will only be resolved with bipartisanship and dialogue. The Chambliss/Kyl bill, offered at the last minute without widespread industry input, garnered only 21 of the 60 votes needed. "The bill has many features in its H-2A provisions that would be welcomed by AgJOBS supporters," said John Young, president of the New England Apple Council and ACIR co-chair. "Yet, just like similar bills in the House in the late 1990s, the bill became partisan and lost a number of Republicans and almost all Democrats." The Chambliss bill had limited support from national agricultural groups. "A unified agricultural industry is vitally important to this effort, and a perfect solution is the enemy of a good solution" Young added.
AgJOBS' legislative champion, Senator Craig, reflected on the majority support but falling short of 60: "A majority of my colleagues sent a strong message today that they support AgJOBS and are ready to address immigration reform. President Bush and Majority Leader Frist continue to stress the importance of addressing comprehensive immigration reform this year. I will continue to work with Senator Kennedy and our other supporters to bring this before the Senate sooner rather than later."
Also on April 19, the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA) announced that the vote providing H-2B employers has continued access to much needed foreign workers. The Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, sponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and endorsed by ANLA, was attached to the emergency supplemental spending bill funding the war and rebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The overwhelming support shown by the Senate was a testimony to the power of a unified small business community," stated John Meredith, ANLA's director of legislative relations. Green industry lobbying efforts by ANLA, PLANET and other groups were carefully orchestrated to send a consistent and strong message. "Passing 94 to six against the wishes of the majority leadership is simply phenomenal."
The H-2B program limits businesses' access to temporary seasonal foreign labor by capping visas at 66,000. This limit threatens many small businesses, including landscape firms, with a shortage of labor and inability to operate this year. The Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act would exempt workers who had participated in the H-2B program over the past three years from being counted toward the cap for the next two years, allowing their employers access to the trained and trusted workers they have become dependent on to meet their seasonal needs.
The H-2B vote succeeded amidst consideration of several other immigration proposals, including the ANLA-supported AgJOBS bill. "The unified green industry push for immigration and labor reform helped to set up the win on H-2B," said Craig Regelbrugge, ANLA's senior director of government relations. "ANLA members and state grassroots partners have invested heavily in educating the industry, and supporting the campaigns of business-friendly Senators and Representatives. While the Senate was not ready to face up to days of difficult debate over the broader reforms included in the AgJOBS bill, most Senators know there's a problem to solve. AgJOBS helped to create a wave, and H-2B was able to ride to victory on that wave. We're very pleased with the initial win, and overall progress," Regelbrugge added.
The H-2B Workforce Coalition, co-chaired by the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA) and the National Restaurant Association (NRA), is the business community group which coordinated support for the legislation.