- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Farmworker shortages that have left tons of fruits and vegetables unplanted or unpicked would be relieved under a proposed immigration deal.

Yesterday’s accord includes a pilot program for legalizing agricultural workers, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.

The aim, she said, is “to see that we have a consistent labor force for agriculture, the one industry in America that almost solely depends on an undocumented work force.

“I believe that we have achieved that in this bill,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

Farmers say that as immigration enforcement has tightened in recent years, worker shortages have ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent across the labor-intensive produce industry and have affected dairy farms and nurseries, too.

In some cases pears, strawberries and other crops have gone unharvested. In others, farmers have chosen not to plant, or have reduced plantings of the most labor-intensive crops, such as asparagus. Economic losses have been estimated in the millions.

“We’re looking at deterioration of the work force and the inability of people to survive. We’re looking at the failure of farms and small businesses,” said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

The “AgJobs” program pushed by Mrs. Feinstein and Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, would create a five-year pilot program to legalize immigration status for those who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days over the previous two years. The program would be capped at 1.5 million.

Mrs. Feinstein’s spokesman Scott Gerber said the basic framework of that bill was becoming part of the deal yesterday.

Their measure would be a separate program and subject to different requirements than for other guest workers or illegal aliens already in the country, Mr. Gerber said.

The proposal passed the Senate last year as part of a larger immigration bill, but the House and Senate failed to reached a compromise on the legislation.

The farm labor force in the United States now numbers about 1.6 million, according to people in the industry, and 70 percent or more are estimated to be illegal.

An existing program — the H-2A visa — allows workers into the U.S. for 10 months at a time. About 40,000 workers per year come in under that program, but growers complain that it is onerous.

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