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Coming weeks vital to shaping bill on immigration reform

WASHINGTON — The next few weeks are critical to sway lawmakers that a comprehensive immigration reform bill must have an agreed upon labor fix for the agriculture industry, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh Produce Association.

“Obviously, there is a race to get a bill introduced in the House and Senate on immigration reform,” explained Mr. Guenther, March 6, in between meetings on Capitol Hill. “There is a window. We want to make sure ag is part of a broader bill if one is developed in the Senate,” he said.

Advocates for immigration reform see the next few weeks, before the March 25-April 5 Easter legislative break, as key to working out differences on proposed legislative language.

Mr. Guenther said that much of the conversation depends on the “gang of eight” senators, who are leading the charge and drafting a measure that would, among other provisions, allow undocumented people in the country to become citizens.

There’s momentum for reform and the agriculture industry has “made a good case to be at the table” of a comprehensive bill, Mr. Guenther said. It’s the details stakeholders are still ironing out.

In the meantime, the newly formed Agricultural Workforce Coalition is trying to make sure Congress does not sidestep the needs of the industry.

AWC sent a Feb. 26 letter to House and Senate leaders calling for a short-term fix to grant work authorization for today’s experienced workers, and a long-term answer in the form of a reworked visa program for agricultural workers.

“Reforms to the immigration system can ensure that our farmers and ranchers have access to the workers they need, both in the short- and long-term,” AWC said. “These reforms require a legislative solution, such as the AWC proposal, that moves beyond past initiatives, which are no longer viable to meet agriculture’s needs,” said AWC’s letter sent to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

United Fresh said its grassroots network is focusing on a major player in the debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), to remind him of the needs of the specialty produce industry, while the Florida Senator is hearing from vocal opponents of immigration reform.

The White House supports immigration reform, and House and Senate committees have held hearings on the issue, but it is difficult to predict the prospect of a bill this year, especially with such a polarized Congress.

“I can’t tell you now where it’s going to go,” Mr. Guenther said.