Immigration reform is a tough nut to crack in normal times on Capitol Hill, but it becomes even harder in the midst of congressional and presidential elections.
“Both parties are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” says Charlie Garrison, a political consultant and lobbyist with the Garrison Group, based in Washington, D.C. Garrison spoke at Dairy Today’s Elite Producer Business Conference in Las Vegas in November.
Dairy farmers need three basic things out of immigration reform:
- “Earned legalization” of the current work force.
- Access to year-round workers.
- An effective program for legal new workers.
Republicans, who desperately need Hispanic votes if they have any hope of capturing the White House in 2016, are in the biggest bind, Garrison says.
In 2012, Mitt Romney received only 27% of Hispanic votes (and that was down from the 44% George W. Bush received eight years earlier). With Hispanic voters the fastest growing demographic, the challenge only grows the longer reform is delayed.
Democrats, on the other hand, win if the immigration issue remains unresolved or if they get a resolution to their liking. So they’ll only vote for reform that meets their political needs.
Both parties are to blame for the lack of progress on immigration. We’ve been here before.
In 2013, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill. But Republicans in the House refused to take up that measure because it was identified as being crafted and passed by Democrats with President Obama’s blessing.
This time, the Senate won’t waste time on crafting a bill until the House acts. And that’s when the politics of the House—and its contingent of reform opponents—come into play, Garrison says.
The most conservative members are insisting on the “Hastert rule,” which states a majority of the Republican majority must be in favor of a bill before it comes to the House floor for debate. That requires 122 Republicans sign on to any bill. With a vocal contingent of reform opponents and roughly 75% of all Republicans not having to worry about Hispanic votes to get re-elected, reaching a majority of the majority on a highly-charged issue such as immigration will be difficult.
So what would a Republican bill that meets these requirements look like?
- First, would it be comprehensive or piecemeal? New House Speaker Paul Ryan has stated: “Can’t trust the President on this issue so will not work with him on comprehensive immigration reform.” But doing it piecemeal, on issues only Republicans support, make House and Senate passage even more difficult.
- Second, it would almost certainly include more border security. “Dairy farmers already know borders are pretty secure because few new workers are making it to their dairies looking for work,” Garrison says.
- Third, it also would likely include more interior enforcement, likely E-verify. Mandatory E-verify without farmworker visa reform would be a disaster for agriculture, he says.
- Fourth, it would likely not include any pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers already here.
Even if the Republicans do get a bill that pleases a majority of the majority, will Democrats support it? Remember, any reform bill is likely to need Democratic votes to pass.
“At the same time, only legislation can fix the farm labor crisis,” Garrison says. “Executive actions can be undone by the next president.”
Trade and GMO Labeling
While immigration reform is top of mind going into 2016, there is a variety of issues that remain active.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This trade agreement, which involves the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim nations, will be a White House priority in 2016. Though the text of the agreement was released in early November, it will take some time to evaluate because it involves hundreds of new rules, thousands of tariff lines, changes to sanitary and phytosanitary requirements and changes to protections of common food names. “Few Democrats will support it, and it will take Republicans votes to pass,” Garrison says.
Genetically-modified (GMO) food labeling. A House bill would allow voluntary GMO labeling, but would preempt state laws from requiring it. The problem: There could be no “non-GMO” claim for milk and dairy products if cows are fed GMO feed.
A Senate bill is expected soon.