Agriculture immigration reform won't happen this year in Congress

June 8, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

Immigration reform to assure Washington agriculture a legal work force likely won’t happen this year in Congress, state officials said Friday near the conclusion of a visit to the nation’s capital to meet with cabinet-level agencies.

They added the Mexican trucking dispute that has prompted tariffs on ag products, including pears and cherries, also remains high-centered.

Chris Gregoire

Gov. Chris Gregoire and Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, a Sunnyside farmer, told reporters on a conference call a plateful of issues at the federal level will see immigration reform pushed off to the future. When it does surface, members of Congress are more interested in comprehensive reform rather than a measure specific to agriculture. "It's hard to see them take that issue up this year," Gregoire said. "The administration wants more comprehensive reform. They have so much on their plate with health care and the budget. People can't see them able to take it up timely."

Dan Newhouse

Newhouse agreed. "We still have a lot of moving pieces. It's not close to resolution," he said. Another version of what is called the AgJobs Bill was introduced last month in both the Senate and House. The bill would provide resident status to farm workers who could show they had worked in agriculture the last two years. Legal permanent status would be available after working a period of time in agriculture for five more years. It is estimated at least half the labor force in Washington agriculture uses false documents. Industry officials have pushed for immigration reform to assure the industry a legal work force.

Gregoire and Newhouse, accompanied by industry representatives, met with a number of cabinet secretaries during a whirlwind visit that began Wednesday and ended Friday.

Among the delegation were Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, and Keith Mathews, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association. Both are from Yakima.

On the Mexican trucking dispute, Gregoire said administration officials are aware of the tariff impact on state products but aren't sure whether a resolution should start with the Obama administration or Congress.

"No one can give us a timeline," Gregoire said. "We wanted to impress on them that time is money."

The Mexican government imposed tariffs in March in retaliation for the United States ending a pilot program that allowed Mexican trucks to transport goods to the United States.

Tariffs of 20 percent were imposed on Northwest pears, cherries and apricots.

The tariff has slowed movement of winter pears to Mexico and will affect sales of what is projected to be a large Washington cherry crop, said Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council. Powers was not on the tour.

Industry officials hope another potentially trade-clogging issue dealing with cherries won't be a problem this year.

The Transportation Security Administration is implementing a law that requires screening of all cargo transported on passenger aircraft by 2010 to deter terrorism. Half of all cargo must be screened this year. The requirement raises concern that the highly perishable cherry crop and other products may deteriorate waiting for screening.

About 1.5 million 20-pound cartons of cherries are shipped overseas by airplane.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings won approval of an amendment Thursday that provides funding for more canine air cargo detection teams to speed screening.

Powers said the tree-fruit industry supports Hastings' amendment that was added before approval of the TSA authorization bill.

Gregoire said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is aware of the issue.

The Growers-Shippers Mathews said he is not aware of any shipment delays for California cherry growers this year.

In addition to Napolitano, the state delegation met with the secretaries of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation, Labor, and Commerce.

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