With immigration reform hopes fading, advocates turn to ag

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



A study released by Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE) and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR) on Tuesday argues that the economy has suffered from the lack of immigration reform.

Farmers' inabilities to find sufficient labor to harvest their crops and expand their operations cost the country $3.3 billion in missed GDP growth in 2012, according to the study's author, economist Stephen Bronars.

But perhaps more notable than the study itself - released at an event at the National Press Club in Washington - were the two logos decorating the front of the report.

The partnership between ACIR and immigration reform group PNAE, which has focused much of its efforts on the high-tech industry, is not a new one. The groups first began working together in 2011, after PNAE's founding. But PNAE's recent renewed focus on agriculture shows other American industries have begun to take notice of agriculture's important constituencies - and how vital the sector could be in finally bringing about immigration reform.

Together we can feed the Bees"

Indeed, sources told Agri-Pulse, the collaboration is meant to draw the eyes of on-the-fence House Republicans, those for whom the prospect of the agriculture industry's endorsement (or, perhaps, threats) could make a difference. Agriculture, immigration reform advocates have realized, could be pivotal in delivering exactly those conservative lawmakers who have been so reluctant to take sides.

On Tuesday, farmers attending the National Press Club event told reporters and congressional staff that the situations on their farms were becoming dire. Few wanted to work for them, they said. While the agricultural guest worker system has foundered - a 2010 National Council for Agricultural Employers survey showed 47 percent of employers were “not at all satisfied” or “slightly satisfied” with the current H-2A visa program - native-born Americans have been hesitant to take farm jobs. The PNAE and AICR report shows agriculture suffered an 80,000-worker shortage between 1998 and 2012.

“Who in America is raising their children to aspire to be a farmworker?” said Chalmers Carr, president and CEO of Titan Farms in South Carolina.

‘We need Congress to fix this broken system,” said Russell Boening, owner operator of Loma Vista Farms and Boening Brothers Dairy, both in south Texas. He blamed House Republicans, in particular, for the inaction. “For agriculture businesses such as mine, [today's guest worker system] can be disastrous.”

That's where PNAE comes in. The organization was founded by newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch and then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2011. Though it began as an effort to bring big city mayors and big time CEOs into the immigration reform fold, the group soon focused on technology groups, including heavy hitters with heavy money in Silicon Valley.

Now, three years later, the group is promoting its “#i am immigration” campaign, a coordinated advocacy push that will highlight different sectors in need of immigration reform every month. February and March have focused on “#i am farming”, as farm and general immigration advocacy groups seek to make the ag case for reform. This month, the PNAE page has posted videos of National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, Michigan vegetable farmer Doug Horkey, and a statement from American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman. All are formatted to be highly shareable by social media. 

Later in the year, PNAE's campaign will turn to its more traditional constituencies - like the tech sector, with “#i code immigration”.

“We and the tech industry have the same problem,” said Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chairman at AICR. “If we can't access the talent, [the workers] will do it somewhere else.”

The AICR report released Tuesday makes that same point. It shows that U.S. fruit and vegetable growers have not kept up with increased American appetites for their products. While the amount of fresh produce consumed by Americans increased by 10.5 percent between 1998 and 2012, U.S. growers only produced 1.4 percent more product, according to the study.

Remedying the problem, though, means going through the House of Representatives, which seems to be a treacherous route.

While the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill last summer, the House has failed to take up the measure. Fall 2013, it was said, would be the perfect time - then came the conflict in Syria. In November, House Speaker John Boehner signaled he would be willing to pass “carved up” immigration legislation, piece by piece. That never happened.

The latest dust-up: an on-air tussle between conservative radio host Laura Ingraham and Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C, who has supported a way for immigrants in the country illegally to gain citizenship. “Our farmers in North Carolina have come to me over and over again: The system is broken. It's been broken for several years,” Ellmers said during an on-air view interview. Ingraham accused the congresswoman of using a “liberal line.”

The well-publicized scrap illustrates the difficult political climate for conservative lawmakers, who face criticism from both those who say illegal immigrants have no place in America and those who believe a successful Republican party will have to capture the Hispanic vote.

PNAE acknowledged that its partnership with AICR - which played out the entire month of February with a coordinated social media strategy - will be important in winning over conservatives. The group's work with agriculture will help PNAE influence “traditional red state constituencies,” the group's spokesman told Agri-Pulse. 

“There are a couple of different constituencies that really have red state potential - agriculture is a leader in that,” said Regelbrugge.

Meanwhile, agriculture is looking for other allies, as well. “We have been working closely with all people who are interested in comprehensive immigration reform,” said National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President Chuck Conner. He also helps to lead the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, made up of twelve of agriculture's largest political organizations and trade associations.

As for the likelihood of immigration reform before the November midterm elections, most observers are decidedly pessimistic. After the release of Tuesday's report and messaging strategy, however, Conner said he's thinking positive. “I remain hopeful,” he said.

#30

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