KENNEWICK, Wash. — Even though prospects for immigration reform have dimmed again, agriculture and industries most desirous of it need to develop a strategy and push for it this year or it may never happen, says a key negotiator of the agricultural component of the Senate immigration bill.
“That means encouraging both Republicans and Democrats to be reasonable on these issues,” Tom Nassif told Capital Press prior to speaking at the Washington Farm Labor Association’s 10th annual Labor Conference at Kennewick’s Three Rivers Convention Center, Feb. 13.
Nassif is president and CEO of Western Growers Association of Irvine, Calif. A labor attorney, former Reagan administration official and ambassador to Morocco, Nassif was one of the CEOs of 12 agricultural associations that formed the Agricultural Workforce Coalition to lobby for immigration reform. He negotiated a breakthrough last April on wages and visa caps with Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers of America.
At the Farm Labor Association conference, Leon Sequeira, a labor attorney and former Bush administration assistant secretary of Labor, and Lee Wicker, president of the North Carolina Growers Association, both told Capital Press that House Speaker John Boehner’s Jan. 28 principles for immigration reform lost steam because of bad timing for Republicans — that it would further divide them prior to this fall’s congressional election.
But Nassif said the greater reason is Republicans’ lack of trust in President Obama to enforce any law passed. “That appears to be a real issue and not just posturing,” he said.
The House Republican leadership principles providing a pathway to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants but no accelerated pathway for illegals themselves, received a favorable response from Obama, Nassif said.
“I liked the statement of principles because it did give most illegal workers and immigration advocates the important thing — to live here without worry of deportation and hiding in the shadows and ability to move without jeopardizing that status,” Nassif said. “What I really liked was that it specifically mentioned only agriculture as having a unique problem which to me indicated an understanding by Republicans that there has to be some incentive to keep those workers in agriculture.”
The incentive in the Senate bill is legal work status and then an accelerated five-year pathway to citizenship for agricultural workers versus 10 years for all others, he said.
The issue politically is simply that “Democrats want farmworkers who are illegal to vote but not work and take union jobs and Republicans want them to work but not vote,” Nassif said.
A bill sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., provides no accelerated pathway to citizenship, would give illegals 18 months of temporary work status and then require them to go back to their country of origin and apply to come back to the U.S. as guestworkers. Wicker said the North Carolina Growers Association supports the Goodlatte bill but that it could be improved.
Nassif said the current H-2A guestworker program provides only a small percentage of the U.S. agricultural workforce so the greater help to agriculture is gaining legal work status for the 2 million or so skilled but falsely documented agriculture workers in the country. It’s hard to imagine uprooting them and sending them home after “they’ve worked for you for 10, 20 or 30 years and you care about them,” he said. That’s why, he said, he “vehemently objects” to the Goodlatte bill.
The $9.64 per hour wage for field workers in 2016 in the Senate bill isn’t bad, he said, when California’s minimum wage will be $10 in 2015.
“Agriculture and many other industries can’t allow either party to fail to act on immigration reform in 2014 because our needs are so severe and getting worse,” Nassif said.
Delaying the issue gets into the presidential election cycle which may cause indefinite postponement, he said.
If Republicans keep the House and win the Senate this fall, chances for immigration reform may be no better if Republicans don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, he said. Getting a few Senate Democrats to side with Republicans to pass something is unlikely since Democrats are more disciplined in holding their party line, he said.
Sequeira said some House Democrats seem willing to work with moderate Republicans to pass a bill this year, but Democrats generally are reluctant to give up a great issue they love beating up Republicans on.