WASHINGTON, June 20, 2012 -With President Obama’s executive order to halt the deportation of young, illegal immigrants announced late last week, U.S. agriculture is wrestling its possible impact on the labor force.

“While this might be a step in the right direction, it could set back efforts by the agricultural industry to get a new guest worker program or other needed immigration reform legislation passed in Congress,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers. “This may make for good politics, but does not solve the critical need America’s farmers have for a legal, stable workforce.”

The executive order, which incorporates part of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a measure pending in Congress that, while not granting citizenship to children who came to the United States as illegal immigrants, would remove the threat of deportation and grant them the right to work in the United States.

“The young people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act can’t wait any longer for Congress to act,” Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on the Senate floor Monday night. The measure does have bipartisan support, but so far has failed to overcome a Republican filibuster.

Durbin called the president’s order “perfectly appropriate and legal,” adding that the young people qualified for the new measure are trained and educated in the United States.

“We’ve invested in these people; let us at least see fruits of this investment,” he said. “It also makes it a high priority to deport those that have committed serious crimes and threaten public safety.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the policy change will apply to those who came to the United States before they were 16 and who are younger than 30 if they have lived here for five years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or served in the military.

The President’s move, made in the midst of a reelection campaign against presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney, may grant work permits to as many as 800,000 young immigrants brought to the United States illegally.

Several Republicans in Congress question the Obama’s authority to issue the order without congressional agreement. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called the action “an affront to the process of representative government by circumventing Congress and with a directive he may not have the authority to execute.”

“On top of providing amnesty to those under 30 years old, the administration now will be granting work authorizations to illegal immigrants at the same time young Americans face record-high unemployment rates,” Grassley said in a statement.

Stemilt Growers, an apple, pear and cherry producing company based in the state of Washington, relies on immigrant labor to fill part of its workforce.

“We’re trying to understand how this is going to work and how we’re going to work with our people who might be in this category,” Stemilt Growers President West Mathison said of the executive order, adding that it puts the immigration issue “squarely on the table.”

“It’s going to create hope in the lives of many young people who under no fault of their own have come to know the U.S. as their own, yet that don’t have legitimate documentation,” Mathison said. “I think we’re going to see the positive attributes that can come from changing some of these policies.”

However, Western Growers Director of Federal Government Affairs, Ken Barbic, said the measure “is at best short term relief to something that Congress needs to act on, whether we’re talking about the DREAM Act specifically or larger immigration issues.”

Barbic noted that the industry has long been “waiting for a congressional solution.”

“There needs to be an incremental approach to address these immigrant concerns,” he said.  “There is broad support around some of these components, including doing something for agriculture, and for bringing in some more high-skilled visa recipients.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., attempted to include an amendment that would reform the H2A guest worker system in the farm bill being debated on the Senate floor. However, the “Harvest Act” failed to make it in the group of 73 amendments the chamber began debating Tuesday. Even so, Barbic said the industry is “looking for something beyond” that type of legislation.

“Our position has long been that a farm bill probably is not the best vehicle for long-term immigration solution,” he said “But we’re definitely interested in seeing the issue given attention.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., agreed that broad support exists on both sides of the aisle for undocumented children brought to the United States. However, he added that “it should be done in a way that does not encourage illegal immigration in the future.”

“Today’s announcement will be welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short term answer to a long term problem,” Rubio said in a statement. “And by once again ignoring the Constitution and going around Congress, this short term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long term one.”

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