Conditions aligning to improve odds of immigration reform

By Dave Natzke

Last November’s election results may have created the tipping point in immigration reform, even though there was no change in White House, Senate and House leadership, according to Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR). Regelbrugge provided information on the long-simmering issue during a Farm Credit East 2013 Dairy Outlook webinar, Jan. 16.


“It was the first national election where it is pretty much indisputable that the largest and fastest-growing minority – Hispanic voters – made a significant difference in certain geographies,” he explained. ”In Florida, Colorado, Nevada and probably some others, the Hispanic vote was decisive in the presidential race and some state races. It was the first election where the Hispanic voting bloc flexed its muscle.”


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney "tanked" among Hispanic voters, getting 27%-29% of the Hispanic vote.


“His own advisors said he needed at least 35%,” Regelbrugge explained. “The challenges facing Republicans are only going to grow electorally speaking, especially in states where Hispanic populations are growing. Florida Sen. Mark Rubio (R-Fla.) said Hispanic voters care about the same issues as other voters – jobs, economic wellness and education. But it's hard to have a conversation on those issues when they're afraid you're going to deport their grandmother.”


Regelbrugge said the situation provides a fresh opening to address immigration reform, offering agriculture the best odds since 2007.


President Obama has said he wants immigration reform to be a top priority, once the issues of the federal debt ceiling and gun control are cleared out of the way.  The debt ceiling will add risk to immigration reforms – both in terms of time and mood, Regelbrugge said. In addition, the same Senate committee with oversight on immigration reform oversees gun control – a “divisive and distracting issue.” 


On the other hand, a positive development for immigration reform is news that immigration from Mexico has fallen to ”net zero,” he said. “This provides a better opportunity to repair a creaky immigration system that is in our interest, rather then when we're being overrun with a large amount of ‘illegal' immigration across our southern border.”


Framework for reform

Regelbrugge said agriculture will not get its "dream” proposal, due to political partisanship and reality.

There will likely need to be a compromise that agriculture, the farm worker advocate community and others can get behind.


Conceptually, a future immigrant worker program for the future would replace the current H-2A program, which many see as too flawed to repair. In addition, he said, there's widespread opinion the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) largely  ignores H2A statute and regulations anyway, so a new structure is needed.


“Preferably, the (program) application process would be moved out of DOL and into USDA,” he explained. “Labor's role would be limited to wage and hour enforcement.”


A future program would ideally offer two options of importance to agricultural employers:

• Some employers and workers would prefer contract agreements, where there's a tie between the employer and worker. 

• Others may need a portable visa option, where the worker comes in with an initial job offer, but can then either continue to work with one employer for the life of the visa, or move among employers, with more flexibility and less bureaucracy in the current H2A structure.


“Dairy’s needs are foremost in our minds,” Regelbruge said. “Our goals would be to have a multi-year visa for dairy employees, which would allow a future worker come in for three years at a time. They might have to leave the country for a brief period of accumulated day every three years, but fundamentally we want an employee for the long-term work that exists in dairy.”


While that would address the future, he said agriculture and especially dairy need a bridge to get there –  a means to retain the current experienced workforce.


“If we lose the current workforce, the logistics of replacing them, doing the training and developing he experience, and getting them through the border infrastructure, just doesn't work,” Regelbrugge said. “We need something that includes both a work and travel visa in the hands of our current workers who can pass a background check and make a future commitment to our industry.”


“As Mexico's economy evolves and birthrate falls – which it is – they will be sending fewer workers even with a legal program,” he continued. “We need a way to incentivize our current workers to stay here. They also represent our career ladder – their skills are essential.”


To do that, agriculture will propose a 5-year “ag card,” similar to the "blue card" program under AgJobs.


Regelbrugge suggested the route to immigration reform will be twisting, with the period between now and June critical. He said a bill from the Obama Administration might actually be a negative, due to the political nature of the discussion.


He expects the Senate – led by the so-called “Gang of 8” – will move first. One of the eight, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), has directed Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) to work on the agricultural piece of an overall immigration reform package. 


“We also finally have a senator on the Republican side – Mark Rubio from Florida – who is taking up the agriculture issue,” he said. “A Feinstein/Rubio team is pretty formidable.”


One scenario is that the House will move slower and takes smaller steps, which might actually be more politically acceptable. Then, when the two proposals are “conferenced” and come up for a final up/down vote, a situation may follow the recent ‘fiscal cliff’ debate, where opposition will be split and Democrats might have enough votes to pass a bill.


Fractured agriculture

“We have been working double-time over the past 9 months to re-unify a fractured agricultural industry on immigration reform,” Regelbrugge said. As the debate got worse, we became a house divided. The trouble with a divided agriculture is that it lets lawmakers – who know they have to do something – off the hook. We have to present a united front to Congress.”


He said the Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC) is a Congress-focused umbrella organization (see related story), allowing agricultural interests to come together and present a unified voice, while seeking groups on the outer fringe of the immigration issue to join in.


Instead of working on a specific bill now, Regelbrugge urged the dairy industry to work toward developing momentum.


“We can't yet ask for a specific bill. We have to articulate agriculture's needs and economics,” he explained. 

The Northeast Dairy Producers Association Inc. and other members of the Northeast Ag Labor group are circulating a “sign-on letter” to gather support, he noted.


Agriculture may also garner the support from new – and perhaps unlikely – sources. Evangelical Protestants – more likely to vote for Republicans – are a growing force in favor of immigration reform. Second, some law enforcement officials say U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) crackdowns on immigrant workers – through I-9 audits – are throwing people out of work. Unable to feed their families, they are being recruited into criminal enterprises.


“If you hold a Bible, wear a badge, or own a business, you want a solution,” Regelbrugge concluded. “That’s providing energy helpful in moving this debate.”