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Immigration reform becomes top issue in Washington this week

WASHINGTON — President Obama broke his silence on immigration reform Jan. 29, just one day after a group of senators outlined their own plan that recognizes the need for an overhauled agriculture worker program.

Speaking at a Las Vegas high school, President Obama called for comprehensive immigration reform during a 25-minute speech. “We have to make sure that every business and every worker in America is playing by the same set of rules,” he said. “We have to bring this shadow economy into the light so that everybody is held accountable — businesses for who they hire, and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law.”

The speech laid out a plan for securing the borders, punishing employers who hire undocumented workers, instituting a national employment verification system and developing a pathway for citizenship for undocumented people already residing in the United States, among other provisions. The White House has yet to release legislative language and President Obama did not mention provisions for agriculture workers in his Las Vegas speech.

But it was a new call for legislation announced Jan. 28 by a bipartisan group of senators that first caused a stir on Capitol Hill this week and offered hope to the agricultural industry, which hires 1.5 million workers each year — at least half of which is estimated to be undocumented.

At a Jan. 28 press conference, five of the eight senators said it was time for Congress to tackle immigration reform. The new proposal is backed by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsay Graham (R-FL), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House are also working on an immigration reform proposal. After Latino voters helped President Obama win reelection in November, Republicans jumped on the issue of immigration reform, raising hopes the issue will be debated this year.

Although elected leaders may be discovering the issue this month, the produce industry has been battling labor issues for years and desperately trying to get the attention of lawmakers to act. News of a bipartisan agreement among key Senate leaders and a high-profile White House speech was welcomed as an important first step.

 “We have worked for years with Senators McCain and Flake on a solution for the immigration crisis facing agriculture,” said Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and chief executive officer, who applauded the bipartisan group of lawmakers for moving ahead.

Western Growers said the Senate proposal includes a separate path to legalization for current undocumented agriculture workers and would set up a workable program to attract new employees, though specifics of the legislation have yet to be released.

“This bipartisan initiative addresses a top priority and longstanding challenge for fresh produce industry employers,” said Tom Stenzel, United Fresh president and CEO. “We’re encouraged these senators have taken the lead, and we look forward to further developing these principles into effective legislation.”

United Fresh said legislation must address the needs of both current on-farm employees in need of an adjustment in immigration status and future workforce requirements for employers.

“The Agriculture Workforce Coalition is heartened that the group’s principles recognize the unique labor needs of production agriculture and the vital role that immigrant farm workers play in feeding all Americans,” the group said. AWC has developed its own principles that address the immigration status of current undocumented workers and a market-based visa program to help farmers find new skilled employees.

After President Obama’s speech, Sen. McCain noted there were policy differences between the White House and the senate package and that passing reform would not be easy.

“I appreciate the President’s support for our bipartisan effort on comprehensive immigration reform. While there are some differences in our approaches to this issue, we share the belief that any reform must recognize America as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” he said. “The road ahead will be not be easy, but I am cautiously optimistic that working together we can find common ground and move forward on this vitally important issue.”