With quick political answers unlikely, immigration issues will likely dog Florida’s agricultural producers for quite some time.

With a new season approaching, sharp divisions between parties in Congress, along with politicians’ reluctance to alienate ever more important Hispanic voters, leaves growers worried about harvest labor in an unsettled position.

Attendees at the annual meeting of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA) in Naples heard that a workable solution to the immigration dilemma remains out of reach for Washington D.C., policy makers.

“It’s hard to see a way forward where we’re going to have a certainty of a legal workforce. It’s very frustrating,” Adam Putnam, Florida agriculture commissioner said.

“From a labor standpoint, I just don’t see much good going on out there. We need a single smart national immigration policy — not 50 not-so-smart policies. But that’s where we’re headed.”

Craig Regelbrugge, the American Nursery & Landscape Association’s vice president for government relations and research, spoke about the immigration problem at a general session, noting widespread confusion and disagreement about the issue.

“We need a 21st century program with a new visa specific to ag work, and probably longer visa terms,” he says.

“It probably needs to be portable so it belongs to the worker. That worker then could move among employers.”

The idea is popular with some policy-makers, which

Regelbrugge finds encouraging.

“It is very important that we get the details right,” he says. “We cannot solve the problem without dealing with the current work force. There’s no other way to do it, logistically.”

Workers who have been in the U.S. for a long period of time, with families and community ties, may need a different solution than more recent illegal immigrants, he says.

Regelbrugge thinks a program tying agricultural workers with well-educated high-tech workers and people without legal documents who were brought to the U.S. at a young age by parents could be beneficial to agriculture.

“There is a debate now going on in Congress with a competing vision on how to provide visas for smart people — advanced degree graduates. At the end of the day, we’ve got to press the point that, yes, we need those skilled workers, and we also need farm workers. We need both ends of the economic spectrum.

“Even though we need those smart people in high-tech jobs, we have to remember that this nation was built on the labor of people at the other end of the spectrum, but our immigration process no longer allows it,” he says.

Little will be accomplished on labor policy during the congressional lame duck session, Regelbrugge predicts.

“If you look at the list of issues before them — like passing a farm bill, which they can’t even agree on — it’s hard to get terribly excited about the path for immigration reform in the lame duck session,” he says.

“Some believe that getting something done in the first 60 days to 80 days of 2013 is a possibility. It is obviously going to be shaped by who comes out on top in the election.”

Extremists from either end of the political spectrum will do little to advance a solution, he says, noting that agriculture will be best served by centrist policies.

“Our job has always been to find ar easoned middle and build out,” he says. “That’s what we have to do, which is why no one of us will get exactly what we want.”

Regelbrugge made certain to show that his sentiments, complete with visual illustrations, lie with the Republican Party during this election season. If President Obama wins re-election, he will pursue immigration reform, he says.

Second term issue

“His chief of staff has said from day one that this is a second term issue, something to do in an odd-numbered year. Will he have a Congress that plainly wants to give him anything that looks like a victory on the issue? He may consider some type of administrative action.”

On the other hand, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, favors E-Verify legislation requiring employers to document legal workers, Regelbrugge says.

“He supports more visas for smart people, for high-tech workers. The rest of it is unclear. In the campaign, he ran to the right on immigration because that was the only thing he could run to the right on.”

If Romney gets elected, his administration could be so involved with other issues, like health care, that it would be reluctant to do anything with immigration policy, Regelbrugge says.

He thinks many members of Congress now understand agriculture’s stance on immigration, thanks to lobbying efforts by his group and others in the industry.

“There has been quite a seachange in Washington. We can go into any Republican office and they see there’s a problem with agriculture (and immigration reform). We’ve made our case. I really do believe we gained ground,” he says.

Incremental reform, with high-tech workers, young undocumented immigrants and agriculture workers being lumped together, is more likely than comprehensive changes in policy, Regelbrugge says.

“Comprehensive immigration reform as an objective has become so over-loaded, with such political stakes, that no one will risk giving the other side a victory.

“One question is that, if Congress passed reform, would government as an institution have the capacity to implement it? That’s why I think it could go smaller, to incremental policy, with ag and a few other things in it,” he says.

Regelbrugge criticized the increased use of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) I-9 audits under the Obama administration.

They solve littleand punish both employers and workers, he says, allowing some newly unemployed workers to be lured or forced into illegal activities by Mexican drug cartels.

ICE stepped up I-9 audits under the current administration rather than use worksite raids and deportation as it did under the George W. Bush administration.

Employers must keep on file an I-9 form for each worker, making them responsible for documentation. Regelbrugge says ICE has recently been auditing dairies, packinghouses and fruit farms in other areas. He knows of none, so far, in Florida.

He encouraged Florida farmers to align with evangelical churches on immigration. With many Hispanic members now in evangelical congregations, those churches have come out with a position much like that favored by growers, Regelbrugge says.

“They now have something called the Evangelical Immigration Table, which includes Hispanic churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Focus on the Family.

“These are our emerging allies. You’re going to see more of us asking you to do political work where you’ve got a pastor by your side. You seem less self-serving when it’s not just you doing it,” he says.

Other allies include law enforcement personnel opposed to the ICE I-9 audits, and large companies involved with food supply, Regelbrugge says.

He thinks agriculture’s message on immigration should be targeted to the “broad middle” of the U.S. population, which so far is unpersuaded on the issue.