Immigration reform advocate Craig Regelbrugge reflects on the progress of 2013's legislative efforts and the window of possibility that exists for the House to act and negotiate with the Senate for a final compromise.
By Craig J. Regelbrugge, Co-chairman, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform
Can meaningful immigration reform become law this year, or at least this Congress? Before going considering the possibilities, let’s reflect on how far we have already come on this most difficult of legislative journeys.
The first four months of 2013 were spent in incredibly challenging negotiations involving agricultural employer representatives and farm worker advocates. The goal was to forge a new legislative consensus around agricultural labor reforms that address the status of the current workforce, and establish a future agricultural visa program that actually works for the diversity of American agriculture. History has shown that one-sided efforts that are strongly opposed by the other side (worker advocates or employers) will fail politically.
At the end of April, success was achieved. The U.S. Senate, which ended up tackling immigration first, saw the wisdom of honoring the historic agreement that had been so hard-won. It was incorporated into S.744, and stayed intact through the entire Senate debate. S.744 passed the Senate at the end of June on a bipartisan vote.
Most farmers are rather conservative folks, and probably more likely than average to tune into conservative talk and news outlets. If so, they may have heard nothing but negative talk about the Senate’s effort to comprehensively fix an immigration system that is not serving the national interest. None of us necessarily likes everything in the bill, but to be clear, the agricultural portion is well-drafted, well reasoned, and reflects the hard work of people who will have to live with the result.
The House, however, is a different body and will follow a different path. Republican House leaders have charted a course to consider immigration in a series of individual bills. Five have already been approved by committees; those bills cover border security, interior enforcement, E-Verify, visas for highly educated workers, and an agricultural guest worker program. Other bills may be considered in the coming weeks, covering lesser-skilled non-agricultural workers, young undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as minors, and even a broader legalization program.
The Ag Act, H.R. 1773, is a mixed bag. Many of its reforms may appeal to current H-2A users. But in its current form, the bill falls short of meeting the needs of various ag sectors and regions. Just as important politically, in current form it cannot pass! This is because any immigration bill is likely to be opposed by a bloc of between 20 and 70 Republicans. Republicans currently hold 232 seats, and it takes roughly 218 votes to pass a bill. Votes of Democrats will be needed, but the structure of the Ag Act virtually ensures unified opposition of Democrats.
We’ve been working under the umbrella of the Ag Workforce Coalition to seek improvements to the bill that would address fundamental concerns with its wage structure, visa cap, treatment of the current workforce, and lack of an "at-will" employment option. It’s a work in progress, but the closer this bill gets to our stakeholder agreement, the better the chances for success.
On that note, will the House finally act? It’s an open question. With the budget and debt debate now put off until early 2014, President Obama moved swiftly to call for Congress to pass a farm bill and immigration reform. Coming off that debate with little to show for it, conservatives are in no mood to deal with Obama. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), reacted that it would be foolish to get into an immigration conference negotiation with a President intent upon destroying the Republican Party. (Some observers might opine that the Republican Party hardly needs the President’s help in that respect!) Heat-of-the-moment frustration is understandable, yet surely Republicans would not hold American agriculture hostage by refusing to seek a solution to its labor woes until 2017 at the earliest.
Emotions aside, there is now a window of possibility on the calendar, essentially between now and Christmas. We have little choice but to push hard for it. To that end, major immigration coalitions and initiatives are joining forces to hold an "Americans for Reform" legislative fly-in on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29. Even if you don’t plan to attend that, you can schedule a local appointment with your representative in the House within the next couple weeks.
Your message is simple: The House must act now. It should swiftly consider and pass as many of the reform bills as it can, and negotiate with the Senate to establish a final compromise. America will benefit from a 21st century immigration system. Agriculture needs a modernized agricultural visa program and a solution that works for our trained and experienced employees. Waiting is not an option; excuses are not a solution. The cost of inaction is high. It is time.
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 [email protected] or at 202-434-8685.