Discussion about immigration reform heats up again


Issue Date: May 18, 2011
By Kate Campbell
During a live interview on CNN following President Obama’s speech on immigration, CFBF President Paul Wenger said farmers “need a path for people to legally come into this country to work.”

Immigration reform returned to the forefront of national discussions last week, after President Obama's speech at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas. The president's speech came at a time when California farmers and ranchers are renewing a push for a reliable, legal way to hire foreign agricultural guestworkers.

Labor experts say, however, the likelihood of seeing comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed in the current Congress is difficult to predict.

The U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to require all employers to use an electronic verification system known as E-verify to determine the eligibility status of prospective employees, before any hiring occurs.

The House Judiciary Committee has indicated interest in reviewing immigration enforcement legislation before the summer recess in August. The committee has held general hearings on enforcement of hiring practices and related issues, such as problems with H-2A, the existing agricultural guestworker program. But, to date, no broad enforcement legislation has been introduced.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security continues conducting employer I-9 audits to determine the legal status of workers at individual farms and other companies. When an audit shows a discrepancy, such as a Social Security number mismatch, it's the employer's responsibility to clear up the problem with the employee or terminate his or her employment. Employers are also subject to fines.

During his El Paso speech, Obama said there currently are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. He said the nation needs to "come together around reform that reflects our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants."

Obama added that the nation must "provide our farms a legal way to hire workers that they rely on, and a path for those workers to earn legal status."

Immediately after the president's speech, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger noted on the nationally televised CNN Newsroom program that farmers and ranchers continue to press for a workable immigration program.

"Unfortunately, today in agriculture, we don't even have a (workable) guestworker program anymore. We've worked a long time to get people to understand that we need a path for people to legally come into this country to work," Wenger said.

It is widely acknowledged and accepted, in Congress and elsewhere, that farms and ranches depend on a foreign-born work force and that domestic workers are either unwilling or unable to perform the available farm work, said Jack King, CFBF National Affairs manager.

"We hear claims that we can secure domestic workers or just pay more in wages to resolve the problem," King said. "Past efforts to recruit domestic workers through the various state Employment Development Department offices have resulted in few, if any, successful employment matches."

Many EDD offices no longer even try to place workers in agriculture, said King, who last week represented Farm Bureau in Washington, D.C., during discussions with other farm organizations about the next steps in efforts to gain immigration reform.

"Many members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, have indicated that agriculture has made its case for a solution specific to agriculture," King said, "and many members have voiced support for legislative actions to address agriculture's needs."

He said farmers and ranchers "have a lot at stake" in the immigration issue.

"We need solid, workable solutions. The H-2A guestworker program doesn't work. We need a transition period to a documented work force to avoid disruption of the nation's food supply system," King said.

Finding solutions could take some time, he predicted, and no one knows what direction reforms might take.

Wenger said California faces two problems—what to do now to solve the current situation and what to do in the future to achieve meaningful reforms to obtain a legal work force. He told CNN that part of his solution would be a greater use of technology to support a legal immigration system.

"We have sophisticated ways to make sure that someone who wants to come from Mexico and work in California agriculture can go through background security checks, that appropriate documentation has been filed and then come across the border safely, not be preyed on by 'coyotes' and drug traffickers," he said.

"It's unconscionable that we have people who want to come here and work, take good farm jobs with good pay, jobs that many Californians won't take, and are being subjected to violence on the border, sometimes left to die in the desert," he said. "Why not let these willing workers come through safely and let them return home or begin the legal path to citizenship?"

Wenger said solutions to the current farm labor situation aren't difficult, but that "unfortunately, politics are at play here."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.