By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Optimism and pessimism about immigration reform passing Congress were voiced at this week's Washington Farm Labor Association's Labor Conference in Yakima.
Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said congressional energy on the issue is high and that the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which AFBF is a founder, is negotiating differences with United Farm Workers of America and talking with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as agriculture champions of any bill.
"I'm optimistic, but I'm new to the game so I'm not cynical yet," Boswell said.
"Both sides recognize ag has to be part of the bill to pass. We have that in our favor but there's a lot of politics to get through," she said and commented favorably on the bipartisan Senate bill proposed by eight senators.
"I wish I could share your optimism, but it ain't gonna happen," retired U.S. Army Col. Felix Vargas said at the end of Boswell's speech.
The U.S.-Mexican border hasn't been secure for over 200 years, it won't happen in a year and that's a prerequisite to reform for Republicans, noted Vargas, a retired Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. State Department and an adviser to the Washington Farm Labor Association.
He urged Boswell to explore executive orders by the president to get immigration reform done. She responded that she questions if the president has that authority and that congressional action is better as a long-term fix.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition is negotiating with United Farm Workers on its desire for the adverse effect wage rate and employer-paid housing and transportation to be part of any new guestworker program, Boswell said.
The coalition supports five-year terms of work authorization for undocumented agricultural workers in the U.S. and a new market-based foreign guestworker visa program that allows at-will and contract employment and year-round availability to help dairies and nurseries, Boswell said.
The House is further along on the issue than the Senate and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., "has been a tremendous asset," she said.
Later Vargas said he thinks Democrats and Republicans are posturing for "political optics" on immigration reform.
"The gridlock is such that they can't agree on the economy, a budget or gun control. I feel the chances of any immigration reform are very slim," he said.
An ag-only labor reform bill would be next best to comprehensive immigration reform for lasting change with presidential executive orders as a last resort, Vargas said.
While the Obama administration has made H-2A guestworker rules more onerous and the president hasn't favored a new guestworker plan, Vargas cited recent U.S. consulate H-2A job fairs in Mexico as evidence the president is open to executive orders to make the H-2A program more user-friendly and affordable.