(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 30) Calling on Congress to fix what he called the nation’s broken immigration system, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address found supporters among agricultural allies.
Citing economic studies, Obama said Jan. 28 that immigration reform will boost the U.S. economy and shrink the deficit by nearly $1 trillion in the next 20 years.
“So let’s get immigration reform done this year,” Obama said.
Obama did not push the immigration topic too strongly during his address, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president for Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.
“There is some thought that he might have not gone quite as hard on immigration as some people thought he might so as not to make the Republican leadership feel so beat up about it,” he said.
House Republican leaders on Jan. 30 released an outline on their principles for the legislation.The document emphasizes a step-by-step approach to immigration reform, with border security as a first priority. House Republicans also call an opportunity for illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and “get right with the law,” but with no special path to citizenship.
House Republicans also called for an entry/exit visa tracking system, employment verification and workplace enforcement and reforms to legal immigration.
“Frankly, there has been skepticism by our membership that the House was really serious about taking action on immigration reform, but this demonstrates that Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor understand this issue is extremely important to our industry and many others,” Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, said in an e-mail.
”We look forward to working with Congress to carry immigration reform over the finish line as soon as possible.”
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., welcomed Obama’s call for Congress to pass immigration reform.
“Many farmers rely on an immigrant labor force, and, without reform, growers will begin to plant less labor-intensive crops or go off shore,” he said in a prepared statement.
In his address, Obama also said he would issue an Executive Order within weeks that will require federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees at least $10.10 per hour and urged Congress to raise the minimum wage to that level. Gasperini said it is uncertain when or if the regulations would apply to suppliers of agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables to federal agencies. “If they are talking about employees of the direct contractor only, there is probably minimal impact,” he said. “The big thing is the pressure that it is going to give to advocacy groups to say ‘We want $10.10.’”
A higher minimum wage could pressure smaller growers the most, Gasperini said.
Obama also hailed first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, which he said has helped pull down childhood obesity rates for the first time in 30 years.
Farm Bureau also echoed Obama’s call for Congressional passage of Trade Promotion Authority, with Stallman calling the trade authority a “needed catalyst” to advance U.S. trade agreements, reduce tariffs and improve market access.