Don’t expect immigration reform this year

05/17/2013 11:02:00 AM
Greg Johnson

Greg JohnsonGreg Johnson,
Editor
SAN DIEGO — Don’t get your hopes up for comprehensive immigration reform, this year or in the near future.

First, let’s commend industry leaders, both from associations and volunteer leaders, for the hundreds of hours of work they’ve put in on immigration reform.

It’s a vital issue in agriculture, and particularly the produce industry, so it’s an issue for which it’s worth finding solutions.

The work that the Agricultural Workforce Coalition and farm worker representatives have done has been important and shows cooperation.

What follows is not a criticism of what they’ve done or how they’ve gone about it.

The fresh produce industry generally agrees growers rely on immigrant labor — many times undocumented — and it’s not a good long-term strategy. But there are just too many factors standing in the way of meaningful reform right now.

At a May 15 immigration workshop at United Fresh 2013, a few of these leaders gave us an update on where immigration reform sits in Congress.

In mid-May, the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on Senate bill 744, called the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” As we said in a Packer editorial a month ago, the Senate bill is only the first of many steps that will become harder.

At the workshop, speakers identified that the biggest obstacle for immigration and farm labor reform this year will likely be matching up legislation that passes the Senate with a similar bill in the House.

Barry Bedwell, chairman of the United Fresh government relations council and president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said the coalition is pushing the wording and agreements from the Senate bill to members of the House of Representatives.

That’s a good goal, but there’s an obvious problem. Many Republican House members oppose any immigration bill that hints at amnesty for illegal immigrants, and it’s reasonable to assume that’s the way their constituents feel (national polling is generally mixed on immigration and largely influenced by the way the questions are asked).

Bedwell conceded that amnesty is a flashpoint.

He said the industry needs to appeal to House reps who oppose reform by telling them that politics is more important than representing their constituents. Not to pick on Bedwell, but that’s an arguable point.

Even so, that’s an argument President Obama made to many moderate Democratic reps during the health care reform bill debate, which passed in 2009 on party lines, and contributed to the Republicans retaking the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections.

I doubt there are many Republican reps who are willing to risk their House seat by pushing immigration reform against their voters’ wishes.

Another argument several panelists made is that the Senate must pass immigration reform with a comfortable margin, such as more than 70 votes in favor, to send a strong message to the House.

United Fresh president Tom Stenzel said United Fresh set up a hotline on the expo floor May 15-16 for attendees to punch in their zip codes and send a message to their senators saying they support the immigration reform bill. Stenzel said public comments have been about 10-to-1 against the bill, so senators need to hear from their supporters.

Considering the tone in Washington the past few years, I highly doubt anything the Senate does will send an influential message to the House, considering it’s led by the other political party.

Another panelist, Chalmers Carr, president of Titan Farms, Ridge Spring, S.C., differed some from the coalition goal of pushing the Senate bill in the House. He said he believes the House needs to pass an immigration bill of any kind — not necessarily the Senate version — which could be improved.

“If we don’t get a bill in the House, we can’t go to conference committee, and we cannot get an end game,” he said.

Carr called this a piecemeal approach compared to a preferred comprehensive approach, but it may be the only way for agriculture to get anything passed on immigration this year.

It’s possible the House could pass a guest worker program with no path to citizenship, or other reforms, which would help agriculture in the short term.

But there’s another solution.

On the expo floor, I got the rundown on a new film wrapping machine from Ramsay Highlander Inc., Gonzales, Calif.

President and chief executive officer Frank Maconachy said it’s primarily for lettuce, and a typical configuration would pack more lettuce in fields than a current crew with field workers, save $600,000 a year in labor and pay for itself in savings in just over a year.

“I’m baffled as to why this doesn’t sell better,” he said.

I asked him if he appealed to growers on labor grounds, and he said as a member of Western Growers, he knows the immigration problems, and that machines like this could help solve them.

But he said he hasn’t gotten much demand on that appeal.

I predict demand for such products will pick up after another immigration reform discussion flames out this year.

Growers are too smart at business to let labor problems keep good product from getting to market, one way or another.

gjohnson@thepacker.com

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LostInTime    
Living Creatures Earth  |  May, 18, 2013 at 09:39 AM

Its called progress stop standing in the way of it. The problem with this government is its filled with old time white settlers that have got so old and covered in cobwebs they think only they have a right to be in this country even though they stamped and robbed a nation of Indians in the first place for it. These anti-American leaders that continuously stand in the way of progress and immigration stone walling at every sniff of change are what is really wrong with this country. It is no secret to the undocumented that the immigration system is designed to do one single thing and that is to extract large amounts of fees keep applicants in the dark for decades whilst continuously extracting fees like a boiler room operation and either wait the applicant out so long that they get old and die or no longer care or simply look for the tiniest of angles to delete their file once it seems apparant after decades the applicant is still waiting. Actually the immigration department is the only organisation in American that is allowed to commit a felony which is to defraud large groups of people of fees exceeding $350 and give nothing in return the illegal definition if you care to look it up is Common Scheme or Plan to Defraud. If the system processed applications in a humane manor in a time frame that fits within the longevity of the human body maybe their would not be so many that actually have legal path not bothering to apply.

Tom Stenzel    
Washington, DC  |  May, 20, 2013 at 03:17 PM

Greg, it seems there's a little misunderstanding here. Our panel at the workshop and the broader ag coalition all agree on precisely the content and strategy for getting immigration reform through Congress this year. And, we're reasonably optimistic. The ag agreement in the Senate bill is solid and that's what we're advocating for. We also know the House must pass a bill -- any bill -- and we are working to help that process too. But to be clear, no one in ag is trying to get a different deal in the House -- we just want to encourage the House to pass a bill. Finally, no one would argue against representing one's constituents. For many Republicans, their constituents are beginning to see that comprehensive immigration reform is good for the US economy and jobs, and is the KEY to preventing future illegal immigration. I'm confident that old fears are fading and we can see good legislation this year.

Greg Johnson    
Lenexa, Kan.  |  May, 20, 2013 at 03:51 PM

Tom, I agree, the panel was mostly optimistic about getting some sort of immigration bill through the Senate and House. It's my opinion that the House won't pass any useful immigration legislation this year for agriculture, but especially anything similar to the provisions in the Senate bill.

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