WASHINGTON, May 11, 2016 - Farmers eager to see Congress make it easier for them to secure foreign workers have been pinning their hopes on lawmakers finally taking up immigration reform in 2017. With Donald Trump now the presumptive GOP nominee, some supporters of immigration reform believe the chances for that happening are improving – but only if Trump loses the general election.
The theory is that a Democratic landslide in November would discredit immigration reform opponents and clear the way for House Speaker Paul Ryan to finally put a comprehensive bill on the House floor.
However, there are several problems with that theory. For one, congressional Republicans may be even more hesitant than ever next year to fall in line behind Ryan on this issue. After all, opposition to immigration has been one of the twin pillars of Trump’s campaign, along with criticism of trade agreements.
And one of the key GOP leaders of the 2013 reform effort, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, never got traction in the presidential campaign, in part because of the relentless criticism he received for his role in the so-called Gang of Eight that negotiated the Senate immigration bill. “That cost him so much for him to do that. I don’t know if we can get to that again,” acknowledged Frank Gasperini, executive vice president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Another challenge for Ryan: In his race for speaker, he promised some conservative hardliners that he wouldn’t move an immigration bill without the support of a majority of the GOP caucus.
Despite those obstacles, congressional Republicans may still be persuaded to vote for an immigration bill should Trump lose the election, says Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank closely aligned with the Obama administration.
His thinking is that the election will test whether Republicans can win a national election by driving up white turnout enough to overcome opposition from minorities. If the strategy fails, he says, Republicans may be more amenable to passing a bill that benefits illegal immigrants.
“The House has been the biggest problem perennially and will continue to be the biggest challenge in 2017,” said Jawetz. “The outcome of the election has the potential to … shape the conversation that takes place not just nationally and in the Senate but once more in the House.”
There’s also a wild card potentially at play – the Supreme Court ruling expected this summer on President Obama’s immigration policy. At stake is an executive order, known by the acronym, DAPA that would allow millions of adult immigrants to legally work in the United States even if they came in illegally. A ruling that clears the way for DAPA could fire up immigration opponents. A 4-4 tie, which would keep DAPA on hold, or a ruling against the president could help Hillary Clinton get Latino supporters to the polls.
According to a CAP study, there are 1.6 million voting-age U.S. citizens who live with DAPA-eligible immigrants. While many of those voters are in Texas and California, which are unlikely to be in play in November, there are enough in Florida to help Hillary Clinton carry that state, Jawetz says. Obama defeated Mitt Romney in Florida four years ago by only 74,000 votes. According to the study, there are about 60,000 DAPA-affected voters in Florida.
A Trump loss in November is no foregone conclusion despite his high negatives. A released Tuesday found that Trump was running close with Clinton not only in Florida but also in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two states Trump has targeted with his anti-trade message. The race in Florida and Pennsylvania is a virtual tie, with Clinton up by 1 point. Trump leads Ohio by 4 points, according to the poll.
The challenge for agriculture is that under any likely outcome in November, passing immigration legislation that increases the flow of foreign farmworkers will require compromise on all sides on a range of immigration issues. Conservatives will insist on border security and mandatory E-Verify, a system for companies to instantly check a potential employee’s status. Democrats want a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and protections for farmworkers.
Gasperini still holds out hope for legislation next year despite the attacks on immigration during the GOP campaign. “We’re preparing like crazy on the assumption that we have a run at it again next year,” he said.
One scenario that could produce a compromise: “If there’s a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president, the House might find it expedient, even if they are still a majority Republican, to give on some issues like this to get them off the table,” Gasperini said. Republicans may “see it as an opportunity to clean house and blame the Democrats.”
But Gasperini acknowledges that some farmers are beginning to lose hope in congressional action. “They’re starting to think they’re not going to see this in their careers now,” he said.
There is good news for growers on their most pressing problem this spring – a backlog in processing applications for H-2A visas, which allow foreign workers into the U.S. for temporary agricultural work. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department have announced steps to streamline the process. USCIS today is launching a new electronic process that will allow the agency to send approval information for H-2A petitions to State by the end of the next business day. That action will in turn allow consular offices to go ahead with processing visa applications.
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers Association, said the announcement was “welcome news” for growers who depend on the program for seasonal labor.
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