After 2012 elections, reform might be possible
The bad news, if it’s even news, is that national, comprehensive immigration reform isn’t going to happen this year.
That was the consensus of a panel of experts at the Colorado Farm Show in Greeley last month. Participating were Bob Beauprez, a rancher and former congressman from Colorado’s 7th District; John Salazar, commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and former member of Congress; and Leon Sequeira, former assistant secretary of labor in the George W. Bush administration.
"If you’re pushing for a comprehensive bill, it’s not going to happen this year because it gets wrapped around the axel of endless debate," Beauprez said.
The panelists said that’s primarily due to 2012 being an election year: Politicians like nothing better than to have an issue like immigration reform with which to harangue their opponents and mobilize their base of support. Plus, the current high unemployment rate simply will not allow politicians to pass legislation that might bring even more workers into the country or make things easier for the 8 million, 10 million or 12 million undocumented workers who are already here.
Things haven’t gotten any better under the Obama administration. While the massive, multi-agency raids of dairy farms and packing plants of the Bush administration have for the most part stopped, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have stepped up document verification audits.
Even dairy producers who think they’re prepared and have followed what they think is the letter of the law can lose 10% or more of their workers after such an audit. "The current administration’s solution is to put the screws to employers, so that they’ll scream and squawk to their legislators," Sequeira said.
But there are rays of hope for 2013. "If President Obama wins re-election, he will push for comprehensive reform. And if a Republican wins, whoever that might be, there will be a push for some reform in an attempt to rebuild the Hispanic voter base," Sequeira said.
"The attitudes of Congress and their staffs have evolved, and in a good way," Beauprez added. "The possibility of change is increasing."
Moving immigration reform forward, even after the election, will require work. Beauprez believes agriculture must first be united in its commitment to immigration reform. It must begin now, in 2012, to form broader coalitions of industries—such as construction; home building; hotel, restaurant and other service providers; landscaping and golf course maintenance—which have come to rely on immigrant labor.
Next, farmers must talk with their local bankers, merchants, friends, neighbors and fellow parishioners about the need for reform. "Rural areas poll anti-immigration most strongly," said Sequeira, who once served as legal counsel for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), currently the Senate minority leader. "Any time immigration reform would come up, we’d get calls 100 to 1 against reform."
It’s therefore paramount, he said, that dairy producers talk to friends and neighbors to explain the need for a legal, documented immigrant workforce. The economies of many rural communities depend on these folks to do the hard, monotonous work of agriculture.
Opponents to reform are motivated and active, so dairy producers must also become politically active and call their legislators. Phone calls do matter; legislators will often track and tally their calls to gauge which way the political winds are blowing.
While dairy workers typically don’t qualify for temporary H-2A visas, there are numerous bills before Congress that could offer relief, says Leon Sequeira, a former assistant secretary of labor in the George W. Bush administration.
Currently, H-2A visas are limited to seasonal farm workers who are here for nine months. Dairy farms, obviously, need milkers and feeders 365 days a year.
There are, however, seven proposals now before Congress that include H-2A visas for dairy workers:
- American Specialty Agriculture Act, H.R. 2847, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Administered by USDA, includes dairy but with a 10-month visa period, capped at 500,000 visas per year.
- Legal Agricultural Workforce Act, H.R. 2895, introduced by Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-Calif.). Creates an additional ag guest worker "W visa" which includes dairy. Again, only a 10-month visa period.
- Access to Agricultural Labor Act, H.R. 3024, introduced by Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.). Grants dairy workers a three-year visa in the H-2A program.
- H-2A Improvement Act, H.R. 1720, introduced by Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), and
- H-2A Improvement Act, S. 852, intro-duced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Both acts grant dairy workers a three-year visa in the H-2A program and allow H-2A workers to adjust to "permanent" status.
- HARVEST (Helping Agriculture Receive Verifiable Employees Securely and Temporarily) Act, S. 1384, introduced by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). Moves administration of H-2A to USDA; includes dairy but still with a 10-month visa.
- AgJOBS Act, S. 1258, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Includes dairy workers in H-2A with three-year visa and permanent status; provides path to citizenship for illegal aliens.
The Utah Compact
Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar says one way forward is the Utah Compact, signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah) in 2010 and endorsed by all 50 state departments of agriculture. It sets forth five principles:
- Federal solutions are needed, not state-by-state actions.
- Local law enforcement should focus on criminal activities, with civil violations of federal code left to federal agencies.
- Intact families should be preserved, and policies that cause unnecessary separations should be opposed.
- Free market economies work best, and are best served by immigration policies that reaffirm a global reputation for being welcoming and business friendly.
- Policies are needed that favor a free society that integrates immigrants into communities.
"And really, who can argue with this?" Salazar asks. Immigration reform, he says, should require strong borders and no path to citizenship for persons here illegally.
But if they are here, Salazar believes, they should be allowed to apply for a two-year visa if they pass a background check, pay any back taxes due and pay a small, reasonable fine for coming here illegally.