- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

Frank Gaffney recently attacked the bipartisan AgJOBS bill cosponsored by a large majority of the U.S. Senate (“Stealth amnesty,” May 18). With blinders on, he focused only on part of America’s illegal immigration problem and completely missed the point that AgJOBS is part of the solution.

Like the president, I oppose amnesty for illegal immigration. Amnesty has failed in the past. I have never supported it. The current system has not worked either, and paying lip service to better enforcement of a broken law is no solution.

Mr. Gaffney ignores a full-fledged crisis facing American agriculture that threatens to outsource our food supply. He also ignores progress Congress and the administration are making in dealing with illegal immigration

By perpetuating a 1930s, head-in-the-sand denial of economic and legal realities, he offers no alternative but more of the status quo, which is the cruelest “amnesty” of all. Restating the problem is no solution.

We need better control of our borders and better enforcement within them. In fact, in the last decade, Congress tripled the size of the Border Patrol and intensified worker identification checks. Apprehensions skyrocketed above 900,000 in 2003. This is progress, but it’s only part of the solution. In a decade, despite dramatically increased enforcement, estimates of the undocumented population have doubled to 9 million or more.

AgJOBS — the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act — offers a new approach, suited to the unique needs of agriculture, to begin solving problems meaningfully and permanently.

Agriculture, more than any other U.S. industry, has become utterly dependent on an undocumented work force. Whatever the case is in other occupations, the seasonal, temporary, migrant, and physically backbreaking nature of ag labor means few Americans are willing to take these jobs and stay in them.

The law actually prohibits prospective employers from inquiring too vigorously into an applicant’s national origin, so growers have little option but to employ those who show up, willing to work. There is no effective way legally to hire temporary foreign farmworkers, because the current “H-2A” program intended for that purpose is so bureaucratic and costly that it supplies only 2 percent of the farm work force.

As a result, according to government surveys, half of farmworkers are undocumented. Private estimates run to 75 percent. Without these workers, American families would not have American-grown food on their tables.

As border control increases, workers who used to leave at the end of the work season find themselves trapped here, as leaving the country becomes as dangerous as entering.

More than 300 human beings a year die in the desert, in boxcars, or otherwise, being smuggled in and around the U.S. by illegal “coyotes.”

The AgJOBS solution is twofold.

For the long term, it would fix the broken H-2A program to provide a streamlined and usable way to recruit temporary guest workers when needed. Because it will take time to retool the bureaucracy in three Cabinet departments and reform the H-2A infrastructure, we also need a short-term “bridge” while American agriculture readjusts to the economic realities of the 21st century. A one-time, earned adjustment program would permit about 500,000 proven, trusted workers with a substantial history of U.S. farm work before Sept. 1, 2003, to keep working here, legally. AgJOBS is not an amnesty or a reward — it is an opportunity for rehabilitation.

AgJOBS improves homeland security by requiring adjusting workers to go through background checks and register with the government. Past employment would have to be proven. These workers also would have to be lawabiding in every other way. They could not begin applying for permanent status until after another three to six years of substantial farm labor and would not be “cutting in line” ahead of others.

Like other immigrants, under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, they would be ineligible for welfare. Homeland security also improves as the government reallocates more resources to tracking down criminals and terrorists, instead of the laborers who put food on our tables.

AgJOBS has brought together the largest, most diverse national coalition ever to support a single immigration bill — including growers, farmworkers, large and small businesses, unions, Hispanic organizations, religious groups, and state government officials.

In January, the president was bold and visionary in proposing a comprehensive outline, or framework, for immigration reform. He called upon our nation to be realistic and compassionate and asked Congress to start working on the details.

I support him. While much work remains to address the unique and diverse circumstances in other parts of the economy, AgJOBS, the result of years of bipartisan negotiation, is a first installment that is ready today to benefit consumers, growers, workers, and our homeland and border security.


Idaho Republican

U.S. Senate

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