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The Pressure Builds for Progress on Immigration Reform

Mar 25, 2013

Both the House and Senate are close to unveiling a comprehensive immigration reform legislative proposal -- but there are two major stumbling blocks to a bipartisan ag agreement.

Regelbrugge photo 3 13   CopyBy Craig Regelbrugge, National Co-chairman, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform

No one ever said that it would be easy, right? Over the past several weeks, progress in Congress toward bipartisan immigration reform legislation has been tough and slow. But with April almost upon us, the pressure is high as an elephant’s eye to begin formal debate over a bill or bills.

Which chamber will go first? That is an open question. While conventional wisdom has long suggested the Senate will move faster, the bipartisan House working group seems closer to agreement on a bill. Members of that group include Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart (Florida), John Carter and Sam Johnson (Texas), and Raul Labrador (Idaho), as well as Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra (Caliornia), Luis Gutierrez (Illinois), and John Yarmuth (Kentucky).

Complicating matters, though, is the question of whether House legislation will move by "regular order" in the Judiciary Committee or by some other process.

The Senate "gang of eight" includes Democrats Charles Schumer (New York), Richard Durbin (Illinois), Robert Menendez (New Jersey), and Michael Bennet, as well as Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake (Arizona), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and Marco Rubio (Florida). A separate working group on agriculture is led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (California) and also includes Senators Rubio, Bennet, and Orrin Hatch (Utah).

As the two-week Congressional spring recess arrived, neither chamber had unveiled a comprehensive immigration reform legislative proposal. Both say they are close, and bills in both chambers are expected to include provisions addressing border security, employment eligibility verification, future legal immigration, and the status of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.

The issue of future legal worker programs – especially for "lesser-skilled" occupations that do not require much formal education – has become a major sticking point. Business wants them. Unions hate them. Pro-reform Republicans and some Democrats see expanded future legal channels as essential to avoiding the mistakes of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and curbing future illegal immigration. I have long believed that if he wants the legacy of truly modernizing America’s immigration system, President Obama will have to stand up to organized labor on this point. It remains to be seen whether he will.

In short, the business/labor negotiations have been rough. The same is true in the agriculture-specific negotiations, involving many of us active in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition and the United Farm Workers union. While the process is very fluid, the two major stumbling blocks to a bipartisan ag agreement have been how to establish wages and a cap on visas for future worker programs.

Both issues, if handled poorly, could prevent a future program from working. If a floor wage for a new program is set too high, producers won’t be able to use it, as they would have to pay entry-level workers a higher wage than most workers now receive. If a cap is too low or inflexible, employer applications for needed workers could be denied. The result could be more illegal immigration, more off-shoring of American agricultural production, or both.

In the absence of a producer/worker advocate agreement, the Senate may resort to a "process" approach that leaves these tough decisions to future resolution, subject to criteria. We would much prefer certainty and transparency.

While progress has been fitful, there is some good news: After years on the field, defining the diverse needs in agriculture and making our case, Congress knows agriculture needs special consideration in an immigration bill. That includes the dairy industry. No one seriously argues against the need for visas that accommodate year-round dairy work. With the stakes so high for all, I remain optimistic that we will see progress in Congress on this issue.

Based in Washington, D.C., Craig Regelbrugge is co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, and vice president for government relations with the American Nursery and Landscape Association. Contact him at or at 202-434-8685.

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