U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns met with more than 40 leading growers, producer associations and local politicians at a June 8, 2006, immigration roundtable in Fresno, Calif. It was the first of two stops in the state. Johanns opened the meeting by noting that “California is a state where immigration can be highlighted because of its need for a workforce. One-fourth of farm labor payroll of the nation is here in California.”
Farmers who attended the event expressed their anger with Congress’ failure to address immigration reform in a thoughtful and forward-looking way. The lack of action has led to a worsening reality in the fields, with an estimated 70 percent of the labor force estimated as lacking proper legal status and increasing labor shortages being reported across the country. “This issue has been around for a long time. It has been the can kicked down the street for too long. The President knows that we need a comprehensive solution to solve it,” responded Johanns.
“For every ag job we lose, we also lose three to four other related jobs,” noted Johanns. “Many individuals like those who are involved in the packaging, transportation and marketing of the agricultural products depend on agriculture for a living.”
Comprehensive and bipartisan agricultural immigration reforms have been negotiated over a 6-year period by leading agricultural and farmworker representatives. Those reforms are a prominent feature of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 passed by the U.S. Senate on May 25, 2006. By contrast, a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last December focuses on enforcement only, jeopardizing the stability of America’s domestically grown food supply.
Farmers now wonder whether the House and Senate can reconcile the differences in their respective bills. Though the House has largely focused on enforcement, Johanns saw linkages between enforcement, border security and a temporary worker program. Johanns also highlighted that “tighter border control will work better with a temporary worker program. Only a comprehensive solution will fix our immigration problem.”
Attendees expressed thanks and support for Secretary Johanns in his efforts to champion a comprehensive immigration bill, which like the recently passed Senate bill, includes agriculture in the solution. “The Secretary was focused and sincere, and there was an enthusiasm in the room in the discussion that followed,” said Jon Reelhorn of Belmont Nursery, who represents California in the American Nursery & Landscape Association’s leadership.