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Immigration Reform: View from the Front Lines of the D.C. Budget Wars
Apr 13, 2011
2011 will be dominated by the federal budget, making it tough for any other message to be heard. But immigration reform advocates cannot just walk away.
By Erich Straub, attorney
On April 6, 2011, I traveled to Washington D.C., to advocate for immigration reform. Because I live in Wisconsin, I met with representatives from my state. Accompanying me was another immigration attorney and a dairyman named John, who is a Democrat. Our group met with a total of five congressmen. Another group of Wisconsinites, including a Republican dairyman named Tim, met with the other members of the Wisconsin delegation, including our state’s two senators.
Based on these meetings, here are my observations on the state of immigration reform on Capitol Hill, specifically as it relates to dairy.
We had our meetings just two days before the deadline for the federal government to shut down if a budget agreement could not be reached. The mood was very tense.
This is the fourth time in recent years that I have traveled to D.C. to meet with the Wisconsin delegation on immigration reform, and I have never seen the congressional staffers so distracted. I say “staffers” because, for the first time in my experience, not a single elected representative met with our group personally. Was this a not-so-subtle signal to us about the importance of our issue? Our group did not take it that way because it was clear from the television monitors in each office that our elected officials were consumed with committee meetings and floor debates on the budget.
The budget crisis was averted, literally, at the 11th hour just two days later. So what does this all mean for immigration reform? The lesson that I took away is that 2011 is going to be dominated by the budget and will make it a tough year for any other message to be heard.
But reform advocates cannot just walk away—if we do not raise our voices, we risk losing ground amidst the budget rancor. The budget wars will eventually end, and our elected officials need to understand that the nation’s broken immigration system should be at the top of the list of issues to tackle next.
Before traveling all the way to D.C., our group understood that the immigration reform message would be overshadowed by the budget. One of the reasons we decided to go to D.C. anyway was to speak to the new members of our delegation who did not yet have a track record of voting on immigration. Like most of the nation, the freshman delegates from Wisconsin were from the Republican Party. After meeting with the staffers for two of them, I came away cautiously optimistic that they would support the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or “AgJOBS.”
AgJOBS creates a route for undocumented workers to file for temporary lawful residence or a “blue card.” These same workers could eventually qualify for lawful permanent residence and citizenship. The bill would also streamline the H-2A visa process, currently the only avenue available for the agricultural industry to obtain “seasonal” foreign workers. Significantly, AgJOBS would make the H-2A visa available for the first time to dairy. Under the current H-2A rules, dairy workers are not eligible because they normally do not meet the definition of seasonal.
If immigration reform is ever going to be accomplished in Congress, our representatives have to reach common ground. After meetings at the offices of two of Wisconsin’s freshman delegates, I am more convinced than ever that AgJOBS is an area of common ground for both parties. Dairy needs to push harder than ever for this bill, particularly with new members of Congress.
All Politics Is Local
For the last three years, I have traveled with dairy producers to advocate for immigration reform in Washington, D.C., and I cannot overstate how critical their voices have been. D.C. may have the highest concentration of lawyers in the world, and an immigration lawyer can only have a limited impact when advocating with elected officials.
The dynamic is completely different when dairy producers step forward and tell their stories. You are not just another lawyer—you are constituents, business owners, and often the neighbors of our elected officials and their staff. Your voice is critical in this debate.
I was again reminded of this fact during my recent trip. During one meeting, the two attorneys in our group were having a passionate discussion with a staffer about what the phrase “securing the border” really meant. After the discussion had gone on for some time, Tim, the dairyman in our group, had had enough and finally interjected: “You know, you guys need to just get together and finally decide what it means, because at the end of day, I still have to milk my cows.”
Sometimes the simplest argument is the best.
Erich C. Straub is an immigration lawyer who practices in Wisconsin and is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, SuperLawyers, and U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law Firms. Mr. Straub has spoken to audiences throughout the U.S. on immigration, and frequently advises Wisconsin Dairy Farmers on the topic. He has traveled Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials regarding immigration reform, and in 2008, the Milwaukee Business Journal described him as a “national leader on the federal immigration issue.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.