It will be vital for dairy interests to pay extremely close attention in the coming weeks to make sure that statements of goodwill translate into farm-benefiting immigration reform.
By Erich Straub, attorney
A historical milestone was reached in ethnic politics this past November. While an African American being re-elected as president was significant, something bigger happened. The Latino vote, the fastest-growing portion of the American electorate, finally came of age. Most post-election pundits agreed: A huge reason for Mitt Romney’s defeat was his abysmal support among Latinos, which was mostly attributed to his "self-deportation" policy position.
Whether or not your candidate prevailed, the result could be the best-case scenario for dairies regarding immigration reform. Almost overnight, the Republican leadership began to reverse its opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. The message was clear: If the party wanted to have an "R" behind any president’s name in the foreseeable future, the issue needed to be resolved immediately and in a way that was humane and credible with Latino voters.
Skepticism from the dairy industry would certainly be understandable. After all, the memory of frustrated attempts at reform in 2007 and 2008 are still fresh. But just a few weeks ago, a bi-partisan group of senators and the President announced plans that were striking in scope as well as similarity. The Senate plan, in particular, represented significant compromise on both sides of the aisle. The signs of the end to a long wandering are unmistakable, and they are getting stronger.
The Senate plan was particularly good for dairies, the only specialized area of an industry that was mentioned by name. A laundry list of past ills was addressed:
- Expedited legalization of the current agricultural workforce with a path to citizenship;
- A new temporary visa for future agricultural workers that is efficient, affordable and market-based; and
- Recognition that the "one size fits all" approach toward agriculture must give way to a visa that is flexible for industry whose business needs are complicated and diverse.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and the statements by senators and the President were "principles" and not actual legislation. It will be vital in the coming weeks and months for dairy interests to pay extremely close attention to the bills and make sure that statements of goodwill translate into immigration reform that truly stabilizes and strengthens farms and rural communities.
Producers should also start preparing themselves for a new reality. Senate leaders and President Obama described a work visa that is not tied to a particular employer, but instead gives workers the freedom to move from job to job if they choose. They promised vigorous labor protections and harsh treatment for employers who continue to hire undocumented workers under the new system. They called for creation of a new mandatory E-verify system, which would almost certainly be backed by continued expansion of I-9 inspections.
But if reform results in legalization for the current workforce and a temporary work visa that meets future labor needs, dairies should have little to fear from E-verify and I-9 inspections.
So has the dairy industry finally reached the immigration promised land? Optimism must be tempered with vigilance as the process unfolds. But after many years wandering in the desert, the signs are extremely positive. A simple historical principle certainly gives comfort. When political self-interest and policy-need align, things often get done.
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. In 2008, the Milwaukee Business Journal described him as a "national leader on the federal immigration issue." Contact him at (414) 224-8472, or firstname.lastname@example.org.