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State of Union misses labor

President mentions immigration reform, but is silent on guestworker program


Capital Press

President Barack Obama again stressed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants but made no mention of a new guestworker program for agriculture in this week's State of the Union address.

He did the same thing in his Jan. 29 speech on immigration reform in Nevada, which shows he will not take the lead in bringing Democrats and Republicans together on immigration reform, said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association in Olympia.

Obama is playing it safe with his union base, which has long opposed any new guestworker programs, Fazio said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in presenting the Republican response to the State of the Union, also did not mention a guestworker program during his brief immigration remarks. But Rubio is one of the eight senators sponsoring a bill that includes a new guestworker program.

Republicans traditionally support guestworker programs but are leery of adjusting the immigration status of illegal immigrants even with payment of penalties as proposed in the Senate bill and by the president.

The pathway to citizenship "includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English and going to the back of the line behind folks trying to come here legally," Obama said in his Feb. 12 speech.

Reform means strong border security and fixing legal immigration to attract highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers, Obama said.

While the president did not mention a guestworker program, Democrats and Republicans understand that substantial guestworker reform is necessary and "the president will most likely not veto any comprehensive immigration reform bill that comes out of Congress," Fazio said.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said efforts to reach a compromise are ongoing, which makes it difficult for unions or agricultural interests to say much.

"The president is clearly very serious about the need for a new immigration process. We do not believe there is a need for a new agricultural guestworker program and we're pleased to see that President Obama agrees," said Maria Machuca, communications director of United Farm Workers of America.

A Jan. 22 UFW position paper shows the union accepts the idea of a new, market-driven agricultural guestworker program instead of just amending H-2A.

The paper was for discussions in response to the agriculture industry and the union is agreeable to a new guestworker program only if it contains the adverse effect minimum wage and employer-paid transportation and housing as required in the existing H-2A guestworker program, Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president, told Capital Press on Jan. 31. He noted the Agricultural Workforce Coalition has not agreed to that.

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, declined comment on the president's speech.

The Senate is beginning hearings on immigration reform and passage is likely in the next several months, Fazio said.

Passage in the House will be tougher, Fazio said, but he noted House Speaker John Boehner, in reaction to the State of the Union, signaled that immigration reform could pass Congress this year.


To watch the State of the Union address, go to 1.usa.gov/SotU13


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