Immigration reform supporters continue uphill battle

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 16, 2014 - Supporters of immigration reform legislation that would create a pathway to legal status for many of the nation's undocumented farm workers are keeping up their push for legislation that Congress could approve this year.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., and other House Democrats continue to lobby lawmakers to sign on to a discharge petition that would allow an immigration reform package to hit the floor over the objections of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The rarely-used procedure requires 218 signatures to allow the legislation (H.R. 15) to bypass committees and receive a straight up-or-down vote. Pelosi says she has 191 sponsors for the petition out of 199 Democrats in the House - leaving her 27 votes short.

That legislation largely mirrors a Senate-passed bill (S. 744), which would allow undocumented farm workers to become eligible for an immigrant visa status called a “blue card.”

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Under the legislation, blue-card holders could apply for lawful permanent resident status after five years if they have continued to work in agriculture, paid their taxes, and pay a fine.

Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly traded barbs over the issue, with no apparent end in sight.

Pelosi threw some gas on the debate last week when she told reporters that race “has something to do” with House leadership not bringing up a comprehensive reform bill. “They're on the wrong side, not only of history, but on the wrong side of the future,” she said.

Boehner, meanwhile, has been blaming President Obama for the lack of reform, repeating Republican criticism that the administration has been lax on deporting immigrants.

“That will make it almost impossible to ever do immigration reform, because he will spoil the well to the point where no one will trust him” to implement the measure the way the Congress intended, Boehner said.

Boehner has taken a piecemeal approach to the immigration issue, focusing mainly on border security. Addressing undocumented farm workers, the House Judiciary Committee in June approved the Agricultural Guestworker Act. The bill would replace the existing H-2A agricultural visa program with a new H-2C program. It proposes to allow up to 500,000 temporary agricultural laborers into the U.S. for 18 months, as opposed to the maximum of one year issued to H-2A visa holders.

Separately, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been pushing for immigration reform, appearing last week on the Rachel Maddow Show. Vilsack said comprehensive immigration reform was a “no-brainer” and would reduce the deficit by $800 billion over 20 years.

The Senate bill, he said, represented a historic agreement between unions and agribusiness to find a way to supply documented workers to farms.

“Today, people are not growing what they're capable of because they don't have enough hands to do the work,” Vilsack said. “It's absolutely essential that we get this done.”

Supporters of comprehensive legislation, meanwhile, are closely watching developments on Capitol Hill. Chuck Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), said his organization was not putting a lot of weight behind Pelosi's discharge petition, and instead is focusing on pushing Boehner and House leadership into getting legislation onto the floor.

“We still believe there's a window this summer,” Conner said this week in an interview. “We'll press hard as a group…the unity is stronger than ever.”

NCFC worked with union groups, religious groups and other organizations to push the Senate package across the finish line last year.

Conner apparently doesn't regard the venomous comments being traded by top leaders of the two parties as a big problem. “It's the season we're in,” Conner said. “Political bickering is a spectator sport.”

The former USDA Deputy Secretary said he remains optimistic that the House could at least approve some type of legislation dealing with the farm worker issue before Labor Day. He said supporters have been having a lot of conversations with Boehner, and that they have been going “member by member” to make their case.

Farmers and ranchers are also looking for congressional action to address the ongoing shortage of documented farm workers. One such farmer, Bruce Frasier, produces cantaloupes and onion plants on his 2,200 acre farm near Carrizo Springs, Texas. He needs labor to pull the young plants from the ground and ship them to growers across the country for transplant. Frasier says the plants eventually produce about 75 percent of the onions in the U.S. He says he begins each day by assessing the labor situation.

Frasier's farm is located 45 miles from the nearest port of entry into Mexico, and the majority of his workers travel 50 miles or more from their homes south of the border. With proper documentation, they must go through a border checkpoint daily, which limits the possibility of illegal immigrant workers on his farm. Still, he can't get enough labor. On the April day on which he spoke to Agri-Pulse, about 50 workers showed at his farm, when he need 75-100.

In the current Senate bill, workers who would otherwise be illegal can travel 50 miles across the border to work, in what Frasier calls a “day crossing” provision. He said this is advantageous for his farm which makes the cutoff, but not his neighbor's operation just five miles away.

However, his greatest concern is for the workforce of his customers on farms in New York, Michigan, Colorado and all across the country. “We're growing onion transplants for someone else to put in the ground,” he noted. “If they don't have a legal workforce, who's going to plant these onions? If my customers don't have labor, I can't do my job.”

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