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Growers hear immigration law update

By SUE RYAN

News staff writer

February 24, 2007

Growers heard immigration reform won’t happen by harvest this year during two agricultural conferences this week in Hood River and The Dalles.

Rep. Greg Walden addressed orchardists Tuesday at Mid-Columbia Cherry Day in The Dalles. Mike Gempler, president of the Washington Growers League, spoke there as well as attending the Winter Horticulture meeting at Pine Grove Grange.

Orchardist Mike Omeg asked Walden the question that was on a lot of growers’ minds.

“Are we going to survive until a guest worker program gets in?” Omeg said.

Walden told the orchardist he wished he had a crystal ball to give him the answer. In response to a question from another grower on how they could help move forward on a solution, Walden advised them on action.

“Call on them to act,” he said.

He was referring to Rep. Howard Berman among others. Berman introduced HR 371, the Ag JOBS Act of 2007, in January. The bill currently sits in the subcommittee on immigration. Sen. Diane Feinstein has introduced two similar measures, S237 and S340, which have been referred to the judiciary committee.

HR 371 proposes to improve agricultural job opportunities, benefits, and security for aliens in the United States. The online summary at the Library of Congress Web site details that the bill would confer “blue card status” upon aliens who meet certain criteria.

That includes anyone having worked in agriculture for 150 days during the 24-month period that ended Dec. 31, 2006, and who apply for status during an 18-month application period that would begin seven months after the act’s passage. This measure would also revise previous H-2A visa requirements.

Walden said if he still served in judiciary that he could help move the bill forward. But with the change in power from Republican to Democratic due to last fall’s elections, he said it’s more important now than ever for constituents to educate Congress about rural needs such as agriculture.

“Let the people in charge know — most of them don’t come from rural agriculture backgrounds,” Walden said.

He did, as his father farmed an 88-acre cherry orchard in The Dalles in addition to running radio stations. Walden cited that background as giving him a great appreciation for what it takes to be in agriculture, especially in the Mid-Columbia region.

Gempler said he thought the Ag JOBS bills stood a good chance of making progress during this session.

“Immigration is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “Congressmen Berman and Craig brought the sides together and guided them to a deal to craft this bill.”

He felt because of industry and labor both being at the table to contribute to the writing of the bill, it would help its passage. Gempler said agricultural industry has been in the forefront on trying to address the immigration issue.

“Other industries that depend on this labor force as well, construction, hospitality, and manufacturing, have been dragging their feet,” Gempler said.

He said the Ag JOBS act would not solve the problem completely but would provide a bridge to a more permanent system.

“It would help until an electronic verification guest worker program would begin,” he said.

Both Walden and Gempler said that reforming immigration had to be balanced with the U.S.’s current push to secure its borders.

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