Immigration reform likely to be piecemeal effort

In this Sept. 27, 2016 file photo, Haitians make their way towards the border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico. Observers say immigration reform bills likely will start soon in the U.S. House of Representatives.

ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Immigration reform bills likely will start soon in the U.S. House of Representatives as the Senate will be busy considering President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and cabinet appointments, a labor attorney and former Bush administration official says.

Leon Sequeira, assistant secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, spoke at the annual Workforce Summit of WAFLA, formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Jan. 26.

“A comprehensive reform approach you can bet on not happening,” Sequeira said, noting comprehensive efforts “failed spectacularly” in the Bush years in 2006 and 2007 and in 2013 during the presidency of Barack Obama “who never lacked for self confidence.”

A piecemeal approach of enforcement bills regarding a U.S.-Mexican border wall and security is likely to start soon followed by interior enforcement including mandatory E-verify (electronic verification of employment eligibility), he said.

“Once they clear out immigration and enforcement issue there’s a chance you could see some reforms of visa programs, particularly in agriculture because there is a well-documented shortage of workers,” he said.

The shortage is well understood by legislators, he said.

However, Frank Gasperini Jr., executive vice president of National Council for Agricultural Employers, has said labor-intensive agriculture is very concerned that E-verify will devastate their workforce if not accompanied by guestworker reform and legal status for illegal domestic workers.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., will be the driving and controlling force and any H-2A (agricultural visa) reforms likely will follow his HR 1773 bill of two years ago, Sequeira said.

That bill moved administration of H-2A from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture and changed the name to H-2C. It broadened the definition of agriculture to include processing and activities that are on the edge of eligibility.

“It contained significant reforms to housing requirements and made the program more user-friendly so you don’t have to hire a lawyer before you hire a farmworker,” he said.

It also provided legal work status for illegals in the country without giving them citizenship, he said.

Allocating visas by state is being talked about and requiring electronic processing of applications by agencies, he said.

Dan Fazio, WAFLA director, said he doesn’t think immigration reform will pass this year or next because Democrats want a comprehensive bill and Republicans don’t. That leaves regulatory reform by agencies as the only relief, he said.

But Sequeira said Republicans have political pressure to act. He said they will pass something in the House and the only question will be whether it can make it past Democratic opposition in the Senate.

Trade associations are busy formulating their immigration approaches for the administration and Congress and a big part of what happens depends on who ends up in sub-cabinet secretary positions in key departments, Sequeira said. He said he’s not looking for a position, being very busy with current clients.

The Trump administration likely will end Obama’s “extreme hostility” to H-2A and deficiency notices on non-substantive issues, he said.

It’s interesting, he said, that the federal government has programs like H-2A geared to alleviating farmworker shortages while it has other programs designed to help farmworkers find other employment.

Jim Koempel, a Wenatchee Valley grower, said he’s in his third year of hiring H-2A workers through WAFLA and that it’s going well.

“You don’t wake up in the morning to find half your crew gone (like can happen with domestic workers),” said his son-in-law Bill Summers.

Koempel said he supported Trump but is concerned about the unknown. “I hope the wall has a slot in it big enough for a box of pears,” he said, explaining he hopes any rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement doesn’t harm pear and apple exports to Mexico.

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