Fred Wilkinson, Managing EditorNow that all is said and done for election 2012 (although there is still plenty being said, I suppose) like the rest of the nation (and much of the world), the produce industry is looking ahead to what round two of the Barack Obama era will mean for their lives and livelihoods.
On a key issue of high importance to U.S. agriculture in general and the vegetable and fruit trade in particular, there’s reason for optimism.
Well, maybe just cautious optimism, given the politically contentious nature of the issue.
That issue, of course, is immigration reform to meet the labor needs of growers, packers and the rest of the production chain from field to grocery store shelf. (Check out National Editor Tom Karst’s Page A1 wrap-up of some produce industry leaders’ legislative predictions for Obama’s second term.)
Surprisingly, immigration reform was pretty much off the policy debate radar in 2012, unlike four years ago.
During the 2008 campaign, then-Sen. Obama pledged to pursue comprehensive immigration reform that would address the situation of millions of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
But while he came into office blessed with strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Obama exhausted his political capital and a lot of good will among the electorate on passing federal health care reform, leading to big Republican congressional gains in 2010 and no chance for industry-friendly immigration legislation.
About the only action on that front in Washington, D.C., was Obama’s election-year ploy for the Hispanic vote earlier this year when he issued a legally questionable executive order to grant temporary legal status to some young people who were brought to the country illegally by their parents. A similar measure called the DREAM Act died in Congress in 2010.
While the president’s move may have been smart election-year politics, it did little if anything to mend the country’s immigration woes and even less to address agriculture’s need for labor.
In the wake of the election — which saw Americans essentially vote for the status quo even though exit polls suggest more than half think the county is on the wrong track — Congress is offering some hopeful signs.
Judging from comments made by Democratic Senate leadership, there’s legitimate reason to think immigration won’t be kicked down the road in the next Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Nov. 7 that immigration reform is “very high” on his list of priorities for the Senate, adding that Republicans could block it at their own peril.
Reid might be wise to tone down or avoid such thinly veiled threats if he’s really interested in swaying some Senate Republicans to his side on immigration reform. Reid’s more positive sentiments were echoed in the days after Election Day by New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the immigration subcommittee.
“I am optimistic,” Schumer said of the outlook for immigration reform in post-election media reports.
Signaling a glimmer of hope for compromise following the election, GOP House Speaker John Boehner said, “If there is a mandate in yesterday’s results, it is a mandate for us to find a way to work together on solutions to the challenges we face together as a nation.”
House and Senate leadership are talking a good game. Let’s hope they’re actually willing to play ball.
At the risk of straying from cautious optimism to outright pessimism, despite the compelling argument for action on the immigration front, political inertia (to be charitable, one could call it principle) is difficult to overcome.
And with the so-called “fiscal cliff” awaiting the lame duck session of Congress, there’s plenty of opportunity to burn up what little hope exists for Democrats and Republicans to work for compromise.
For the good of the country and the produce industry, let’s hope the sometimes stubborn Obama, the polarized House of Representatives and Senate, and the still deeply divided U.S. citizenry accept that immigration reform is in the nation’s best interest and needs to happen.