Despite furor, chances for new immigration law unlikely to improve
By WES SANDER
Prospects for immigration reform this year have simultaneously taken a step forward and a step backward.
And despite the issue having recently exploded on the national radar, observers say Congress won't build up enough steam to address immigration this year.
The issue was ignited by a new set of laws in Arizona mandating state enforcement of federal immigration law. It sparked protests and media debate, but the issue of enforcement dominated discussion, helped by claims in Arizona that crime rates are partly attributable to porous borders.
Ron Gaskill, director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the episode hasn't changed the polarized politics surrounding the issue.
"The Arizona development has certainly crystallized the very different positions that people have on immigration reform," Gaskill said. "I don't sense that this issue is going to go anywhere in 2010."
Jan Brewer, Arizona's Republican governor, faces a primary opponent questioning her conservative credentials. So when a conservative legislature sent the bill to her desk, she signed it.
Observers say that's an example of the rightward shift they had long expected many politicians to take, saying it would spell the doom of any contentious legislation in 2010 after the passage of health care reform in March.
But Brewer's signature also rewarded reform backers with all they could have hoped for this year: It placed immigration issues atop the national media agenda for two weeks.
Maria Machuca, spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers union, said the new attention is creating greater hope that something will happen soon, despite the doubts of many.
"It seems to me what happened in Arizona made people realize we've got to do something," she said. "This puts things in a different perspective, and we feel that we'll get something this year.
"Now the question is, when will politicians get to work instead of playing politics?" Machuca said.
Amidst the furor, Harry Reid, leader of the Senate's Democratic majority, announced a Democratic reform proposal that included AgJOBS -- the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, introduced a year ago by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Reid joined with Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles Schumer of New York.
But Schumer had earlier teamed with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to write the proposal, and Graham withdrew in protest when Reid stepped in.
Graham had been working with Democrats on a climate change bill, which he had expected to be next on the Senate's agenda. Many observers were meanwhile calling Reid's turn toward immigration an effort to shore up the Latino vote in his home state of Nevada while elections loom.
No doubt responding to the political atmosphere, most of the Democratic proposal focuses on enforcement, addressing border security as well as employment practices.
Ag interests want to create a well-rounded immigration overhaul with the aim of allowing farmers to hire without being tripped up by impediments in the system -- like a guestworker program weighed down by inefficiencies and employer costs, or enforcement being stepped up when half of available workers are still undocumented.
That's why farm groups have been trying to prevent regional efforts to push enforcement, said Shawn Cleave, government affairs specialist with the Oregon Farm Bureau. In addition to the Arizona law, they include a recent county-level push in Oregon to require farmers to use the federal electronic system for verifying employees' status, a system that farmers say still doesn't work properly.
"This patchwork of local ordinances is going to become a death by a thousand cuts," Cleave said. "We just want a uniform solution for the country."
Cleave agrees the political scene is too polarized. He points to the opponents of current reform proposals who persistently dismiss any idea for allowing undocumented immigrants a path to legal status.
"When they see something like that, they just scream amnesty," Cleave said. "They're throwing bombs and not really willing to work with anybody."