WASHINGTON, May 9, 2014-The White House and USDA continue their full court press to get a vote on comprehensive immigration reform in the House with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack commenting on the issue in recent days.
Vilsack, after holding a media call last week on the topic, participated in a teleconference this week with Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, and Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, to discuss the potential economic impact of immigration reform in California. All three stressed the lack of a legal workforce of farm workers, and pushed for legislation to get the workers documented.
Vilsack said there are more than 81,000 farms in California that sell about $33.9 billion in agricultural products annually. “There’s no more important state to agriculture than California,” Vilsack said. “Some farms are no longer able to harvest their product because of a lack of workforce.”
The Obama administration has been pushing hard to get the House to vote on any immigration bill so that it could be moved to conference with the Senate-passed legislation (S. 744). The Senate bill would allow undocumented farm workers to become eligible for an immigrant visa status called a “blue card.” 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.
Rodriguez said no industry would benefit from immigration reform more than agriculture, and he said he was confident there are enough votes in the House to approve the Senate language.
Cunha said the legislation needs to be done by June in order to get it signed into law by September. Cunha said there has been increased criminal cartel activity in California involving human trafficking. “The cartel takes 50 percent of [the farm workers’] money and if they don’t pay, bad things will happen,” Cunha said. Undocumented workers are often reluctant to report crimes such as extortion to the police.
Vice President Joe Biden this week urged House lawmakers to consider the Senate-passed bill. “The message is simple. We don’t have to redouble our efforts,” Biden said. “We have to redouble or demand… that the House to take up the bill.”
Biden called out House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has been making comments recently about moving legislation. “It’s time for him to stand up, stand up and not let the minority — I think it’s a minority — of the Republican Party in the House keep us from moving in a way that will change the circumstances for millions and millions of lives,” Biden said.
He said that passing immigration reform would be a “shot in the arm” for the country.
In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., wants to replace the existing H-2A agricultural visa program with a new H-2C program. His bill (H.R. 1773) proposes to allow up to 500,000 temporary agricultural laborers into the U.S. per year. The visa would allow workers to stay in the country for up to 18 months, as opposed to the maximum of one year issued to H-2A visa holders.
Last week, Obama met with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) business and faith leaders and repeated his strong desire for the House to follow the bipartisan example of the Senate and pass immigration reform. A White House statement said the president urged the leaders to continue to press the House leadership to move forward.
“The president also expressed deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system,” the statement said. “The president emphasized that while his administration may be able to take steps to better enforce and administer immigration laws, nothing can replace the certainty of legislative reform and this permanent solution can only be achieved by Congress.”
Further, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., recently noted that the spring agenda released by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., did not include comprehensive immigration reform, which he said “could pass the House with strong bipartisan support, grow our economy, and reduce the deficit.”
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