TWIN FALLS, Idaho — While immigration reform passed in the Senate last June, the House has been unable to develop a consensus and bring similar legislation to a vote.
Agriculture continues to face labor shortages because Congress didn’t act pass a workable visa program, said Washington, D.C. lobbyist Charlie Garrison during an Idaho Dairymen’s Association meeting in Twin Falls last week.
The difficulties in the House stem from an internal Republican debate, he said.
In January, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, released his principles for immigration reform, generating a good deal of backlash, partly because those who opposed to the farm bill also oppose immigration reform, he said.
“Several Republicans in the House won’t support anything having to do with immigration reform,” Garrison said.
The House wants a piecemeal approach to 10 separate immigration issues, beginning with border security, he said.
Republican leaders also want a working entry and exit visa system to track immigrant workers coming into the country.
But having that much information on an identification card raises privacy issues for some U.S. citizens leaving and re-entering the country, he said.
House leaders also say there must be a workable electronic employment verification system. Dairymen are ready to comply with a so-called “E-verify” system if it’s workable, he said. The Senate bill contains such a tracking system with a provision that gives agriculture the most time of any industry to comply, he said.
“Dairymen can’t scrutinize one applicant over another without the risk of a discrimination lawsuit,” and any reform can’t make them the dairy police, he said.
Idaho Dairymen’s No. 1 priority is the legalization of the current work force without the current “touchback” provision that requires legal workers to return to their home country for a defined period of time before returning to work in the U.S. The existing touchback in work visas doesn’t work for dairies, which need those workers every day of the year, he said.
IDA wants earned legal status for the foreign workers who are gainfully employed. The organization wants those workers to be provided visas, said Bob Naerebout, IDA executive director.
“We don’t have a problem with touchback as long as it’s feasible, he said.
If after three years, a worker is required to go back to his country for a month or two, IDA wants a provision that time in the country of origin can be accumulated throughout the visa period, he said.
For example, if a worker wants to go home for a week or two annually, that time would count toward the touchback time. Most workers would like to be able to travel back and forth openly, he said.
Citizenship is not one of IDA’s issues in immigration reform. The organization’s position is that the current pathways to citizenship are adequate, he said.
The Senate bill includes a provision to legalize the current work force, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., did introduce a bill with a similar provision. That bill passed the House Judiciary Committee in June 2013, but there doesn’t seem to be any plan to take it to the floor, he said.
Boehner’s immigration principles also call for a good tracking system for workers’ entry and exit, but that technology isn’t yet available, Garrison said.
The principles also include a visa program to retain high-skilled foreign students who are educated in the U.S. and calls for a temporary worker program allowing for realistic, enforceable and usable legal paths for entry into the U.S.
They also call for an opportunity for legal residence or citizenship for those brought to this country as children who meet certain eligibility standards, he said.
Finally, the principles outline that those living here without proper documentation would be allowed to live in the U.S. legally if they meet certain conditions, including passing a background check, paying fines and back taxes, being proficient in English and being able to support themselves and their families.
Now the question is whether House leadership will take anything to the floor that reflects those principles, and that just isn’t known yet, Garrison said.
“I think we’ll know sometime this summer or after the November elections,” he said.
Some House Democrats have offered to delay implementation until 2017 if the House passes a bill this year, addressing concerns of House Republicans who say they don’t trust Obama to enforce any reform, he said.
The Senate bill is live until Congress adjourns this year, so there’s still a chance for immigration reform in 2014, he said.