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Grower lobbyist: Senate immigration bill is the train, so ‘get on it’

“For people who want immigration reform, the U.S. Senate bill is the train. Get on it,” urged Craig Regelbruge, vice president for government relations at the American Nursery & Landscape Association and cochairman of the Agriculture Committee for Immigration Reform.

The bill contains a guest worker provision important to the floral industry.

IMMIGRATION713-CRAIG-REGELBCraig RegelbrugeRegelbruge told The Produce News that the Senate bill stands an almost 50 percent chance of passing in some form. “If they can’t get it done in time for their July 4 recess to begin, there’s a chance the Senate will stay in session to work on it,” he said, describing the 867-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act as, “the best opportunity for immigration reform we’ve had since 2006.”

One California floral executive who did not want to be named said the proposal is greatly needed due to floral’s seasonal nature, requiring an influx of workers for holidays. At that executive’s facility, half a million blooms are shipped in the two weeks prior to Mother’s Day and starting in April, the number of workers grows from around 12 to about 200. Lack of a guest worker program makes seasonal labor in short supply.

The executive said there are drawbacks to the proposed legislation. “It takes a worker with a blue card four years to get a green card, then 13 years or more to become a citizen. I think they should let workers with years of paying taxes and contributing to the economy, free from crime, who’ve paid their $2,000 fines, get legal faster than that.”

Mark Thompson, general manager at Hiawatha Corp., an evergreen firm in Shelton, WA, lamented the shortage of seasonal workers for the Christmas holidays. “It’s like the mythical village in the musical play ‘Brigadoon’ that surfaces once every 100 years, except that it happens every fall,” he said. “We grow from 50 full-time employees to more than 800 workers, with temporary employees from October through December.”

His company makes around 50,000 products per day and does 60 percent of its business during the six high-performance weeks leading up to Christmas, the executive noted. “I think it would be safe to say we were short 80 to 100 pieceworkers” for the 2012 season, Thompson said. “Our government needs to pass legislation to help businesses like ours with a guest worker program for the migrant workers.”

Supporters hope the bill will clear the Senate with 70 or more votes to ensure strong momentum as it moves to an uncertain future in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 21 by a 13-5 vote after surviving 301 amendments. On June 11, the Senate agreed to consider the bill, after acting on another 100 amendments, by an 82-15 margin. Senate rules require 60 votes to head off a filibuster on a non-budget bill.

Regelbruge said the bill offers two tracks for guest workers: a blue card that offers interim status to current agricultural workers while they wait to become eligible to apply for citizenship, and a visa program specific to agriculture that could admit up to 200,000 permanent, low-skilled workers by 2020, based on economic conditions and the availability of American workers. The industry committee Regelbruge co-chaired helped develop the proposals.

Randel Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the visa program offered “a streamlined process for employers to register job openings for temporary foreign workers, while still ensuring that American workers get first crack at every job” in the April 5 New York Times. The visa program was drafted to remedy the failings of the H-2A guest worker program.

The overall bill is designed to secure the border, allow foreign workers into the country while requiring employers to verify their legal status, and put 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship. It includes four background checks as immigrants move toward citizenship, tightens the rules on employment verification and includes new ways to prevent false use of Social Security numbers. It has an entry-exit system to monitor traffic at borders and ports.

Regelbruge said the main point of contention in mid-June was border security. The bill provides $4.5 billion to enhance border security, extending border fencing and surveillance. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a sponsor of the bill, told The New York Times on June 10 he would propose an amendment to take border protection plans and operations from the Department of Homeland Security and place them with Congress.

In mid-March more than 100 floral industry members from 25 states took part in 140 meetings in congressional offices as part of the industry’s largest federal lobbying effort. The event, the 33rd Annual Society of American Florists Congressional Action Days, highlighted four key issues for the floral industry, including immigration reform.