Beyond the Arizona Decision: Ag Interests Say Congress Must Act on Immigration Reform

04:29PM Jun 26, 2012
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Supreme Court ruling on controversial Arizona law underscores need for uniform federal solution to resolve immigration troubles.

Even as both sides claim victory in Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s immigration law, agricultural interests say the mixed reactions and the justices’ own split decision put the spotlight squarely on Congress to take decisive action on national immigration policy. Immigrant worker at dairy 2011

“The ruling does crystallize the need for Congress to act and get the immigration issue fixed,” said Michael Marsh, CEO for California-based Western United Dairymen. “We’ve got to find a better path forward.”

“The mixed high court ruling, along with the recent executive order by the Obama administration to stop the deportation of some younger, undocumented individuals, fully illustrates that, regardless of which path is chosen, the few options for immigration reform remain controversial and divisive,” said Jerry Kozak, CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.

“At the same time, these developments also show how critically necessary it is to resolve the immigration policy conundrum, especially for farmers and other employers concerned with maintaining and recruiting a workforce,” Kozak added.

The Supreme Court ruled June 25 on Arizona’s S.B. 1070 law, which the Grand Canyon State enacted in 2010. Designed to discourage and deter the unlawful entry, presence and economic activity of undocumented aliens, it was considered one of the nation’s toughest stances on illegal immigration. One S.B. 1070 provision required anyone who police suspected of being in the country illegally to produce legal residency proof, such as a green card or Arizona driver’s license. Another made it illegal for an undocumented worker to work or seek work in Arizona.

The U.S. Department of Justice had challenged Arizona’s statute, saying it constitutionally interfered with the federal government’s authority to set and enforce immigration policy.

The high court struck down three of the law’s four provisions. It ruled 5-3 that Arizona had overstepped federal authority by mandating S.B. 1070 offenses as state crimes. “Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law,” the Court said in its June 25 opinion.

Justices, however, upheld the provision allowing law enforcement to ask for documentation of immigrant status.

Although specific to Arizona law, the decision highlights the immigration dilemma across the U.S., particularly in rural America. An estimated 75% of workers who harvest U.S. crops are illegal immigrants. Immigrant labor makes up 50% or more of the nation’s dairy work force. Agricultural groups have sought for 15 years to overhaul the nation’s guest-worker program to ensure a legal and stable workforce.

More recently, increased border security, deportations, farm raids and audits, and other enforcement measures have decreased worker availability. That’s led to concerns about farm worker shortages.

Monday’s ruling falls short of the broader immigration solution sought by the agricultural and other business sectors. “The frustrating thing is that it leaves us with the status quo,” said Wisconsin-based immigration attorney Erich Straub.

“The decision does not intersect with our issues of border security and securing a work force,” said Joe Sigg, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau.

Some dairy producers, however, think the ruling may lessen immigration scrutiny of their operations. “I think it will ease Immigrations and Customs Enforcement inspections for now,” said Arizona’s Ross Tappan, whose dairy survived an I-9 audit last year.

Ross Tappan   ICE   AZ 8 11 150   Copy
Arizona dairy producer Ross Tappan.

By striking down key parts of Arizona’s law, the ruling may deter other states from enacting “copycat” laws similar to S.B. 1070, Straub said.

In neighboring New Mexico, the ruling “brings to light the need for immigration reform for agriculture and especially dairy,” said Beverly Idsinga, executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico. “Since dairy is a year-round business, we need a year-round guest-worker program. We really support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s AgJOBs bill, which relates more to dairy’s needs than the current H2-A program.”

New Mexico’s 160 dairies directly employ 4,500 people, Idsinga said.

“Voters would support sensible and incremental reforms that begin to address the broken system employers currently face," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers Association. "Addressing the needs of agriculture is the place to begin.”

WGA is a trade organization with 2,500 members in California and Arizona. Its members grow, pack and ship about half of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Even Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledges that congressional action is needed to solve the nation’s immigration dilemma. “We continue to urge Congress to pass comprehensive reform because nothing short of a comprehensive solution will resolve the current patchwork of immigration laws,” Napolitano said in a statement issued Monday.