Agricultural sectors that “had been in a blood feud for more than a decade” over immigrant labor issues have, within the last year, realized that “they needed to get on the same page — that if they didn’t hang together, they would hang separately,” says Tamar Jacoby.

The government’s E-Verify program for employers to check on applicant identity and work authorization — which Republican immigration hawks in the House wanted to make mandatory for all American employers — helped to coalesce various agriculture sectors and organizations toward a unified approach, she said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University.

Jacoby is president and CEO of Immigration Works USA, a national federation of 5,000 employers, including growers, working with agriculture advocates in Washington, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, to advance better immigration law.

She says “the looming threat” of E-Verify “concentrated a lot of minds really fast.”

With the GOP immigration hawks pushing for mandatory adoption for all employers, “Other Republicans started hearing from labor-intensive agriculture interests in their districts who were saying: ‘We’ve tried to hire Americans, and we can’t. Unauthorized immigrants are half our work force, and we have massive turnover. Bottom line — if you do this, you’ll shut down labor-intensive agriculture in America. If you do this, we’re out of business, and a lot of this business will end up somewhere outside the U.S.”

The looming threat of E-Verify also concentrated a lot of grower minds, Jacoby says, and “ag factions that had been in a blood feud for more than a decade were suddenly realizing that needed to get on same page.

“There were a lot of meetings, a lot of shouting, a lot of negotiations, with the upshot that the American Farm Bureau Federation has just completed a 9-month process of developing a unity plan. The hope is that unity within the 3-million member Farm Bureau organization will generate unity among the other ag groups, and intense negotiations are now under way.”

Meanwhile, she says, “After 10 years of waiting for comprehensive immigration reform, congressional lawmakers are starting to ask: ‘Can we fix some pieces of this now, rather than waiting for a complete remodel?’

“Interestingly, a lot of these are Republicans, who have been resisting any movement on immigration since George W. Bush was president. There are still things they don’t like about reform — but they’re starting to realize that, for business and other reasons, it might be a good thing to do. And there’s also an eagerness [by Republicans] to take back the lead on the immigration issue.”

Bottom line, Jacoby says: “In Washington there’s a whole new landscape. There’s a potential opening in Congress for unity, or at least a broader consensus among ag advocates. I don’t want to be too hopeful, but after being stuck in a frozen system for more than a decade, watching it begin to thaw is exciting.”

While the American Farm Bureau Federation proposal “is still under wraps,” she says, “most of the people who’re thinking about this agree that, for a workable unity plan, there are some key elements that are needed.