Lame-Duck Immigration Reform

Published on: 18:28PM Oct 08, 2010

If immigration reform isn't addressed now, dairy farms will live under threat for years to come. The dairy sector needs to remind the politicians it has supported this year how crucial AgJobs is to its stability.


What a way to run a country. Last week’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid of a progressive, 2,500-cow Michigan Dairy farm puts an exclamation point on the need that immigration reform must be done now. If it isn’t, dairy farms will live under threat for years to come.

If Republicans gain control of Congress in 2011, comprehensive immigration reform is dead. Cong. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, will then chair the House Judiciary Committee, and all immigration legislation will have to pass under his gavel. “Smith and their ilk leave no room for compromise,” says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Ag Coalition for Immigration Reform. “Their stance is simple: ‘Raise wages, hire Americans, mechanize, or go out of business.’”
That formula doesn’t work. Example: A dairy in South Dakota, just a few miles east of one of the state’s larger cities, advertised for a machinery maintenance worker last month. No milking involved. Regular hours. Wages well above minimum. Benefits included. The ad ran for several weeks, but not a single call. In a recession. In South Dakota.
Time and again, immigrant labor is the only willing labor available to dairy producers. The good news is that there’s a chance, ever so slight, that a lame-duck Congress could enact some positive immigration reform. It won’t be comprehensive reform, but AgJobs does have tiny window of opportunity to sneak through the political morass.
If the Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives with the Nov. 2 election, “retiring” Democrats—both those who decided not to run and those who lost their seats—might just decide to do the right thing. There are a number of out-going Democrats who have supported AgJobs in the past, and they know this is their last—and only—chance. Incoming Republicans, particularly those from rural areas who will replace the retirees, also would like to do something for their constituents but still don’t want to deal with comprehensive immigration reform. So they might signal to their leadership to go ahead and pass it. 
Experienced lobbyists say lame-duck congressional sessions rarely gush as much new legislation as you might expect. The conventional wisdom is that out-going legislators want to pass as many bills as they can while they still have the majority. The contrary usually prevails. “Ousted politicians are usually in no mood to support leadership who led them over a cliff,” one lobbyist told me.
Some argue that Sen. Leahy’s, D-Vt., H2A proposal might be politically more palatable. It’s more of a “technical fix,” allowing dairy milkers to be included under the seasonal worker provision of the H2A regulation. Technical fixes to regulations are usually far easier to pass than broader changes. There’s only one problem with Leahy’s proposal: It deals with future workers and does nothing for immigrant workers currently here. 
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., has also introduced his own H2A bill, which would give dairy workers access to protection. But it apparently is so employer friendly, it is being vilified by labor groups and stands little chance of passage.
So that brings us back to AgJobs and our lame-duck Congress. Regelbrugge acknowledges AgJobs won’t be easy to push through. Dairy groups and individual dairy producers need to remind the politicians they have supported this year—both Democrat and Republican—how crucial AgJobs is to the stability of the dairy sector.
In this election cycle, dairy co-ops and processors have contributed nearly $3 million (so far) to Congressional campaigns, with about half going to each party. It is fair to remind both Republicans and Democrats of that fact, and to make one last request to support AgJobs prior to the seating of the new Congress.
On immigration reform, producers and processors will agree: Jailing dairy farm owners and deporting willing workers is a stupid way to run a country.