KENNEWICK, Wash. — Discussions between political leaders in Washington, D.C., on immigration and border security are as "petty" and "fruitless" as John Keeling has ever seen.
Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council, spoke Jan. 23 at the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference in Kennewick, Wash.
"Everybody knows what we need to do on immigration," he said. "We need to have a guestworker program that works for agriculture. We need to do something to create work status for those individuals who are here that are not fully documented, because we're not going to send 7 to 10 million people home."
Keeling called for an "intelligent" discussion on border security, something he said is "pretty damn hard to come by" in Washington D.C. right now.
President Donald Trump is locked in on a physical wall, instead of creating a commission to say some places a wall is needed, while it doesn't make sense to fence 2,000 miles of desert, Keeling said.
The wall is not only unworkable or unfeasible, according to the Democrats, but immoral, too, he said.
"All the pieces of the puzzle are there to cut a deal," he said. "The Democrats want DACA. Everyone wants an ag program on both the Democrats and Republicans' side. It's doable, it can happen, but they've got to get out of the places they've put themselves in, locked down and pointing fingers at each other."
DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, allows young people who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children, and who meet several key criteria, to be considered for temporary relief from deportation.
Keeling covered several other topics during his presentation.
The new U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada is virtually the same as the original North American Free Trade Agreement.
"It also tells you something about the president," Keeling said. "He is the master of making a big deal out of something, making relatively small changes in that thing and then declaring a major victory over it."
The new deal did not do away with steel and aluminum tariffs, and U.S. frozen potato products exported to Mexico are now being displaced by those from Canada and the European Union, Keeling said.
It must still be approved by Congress, during a time when the House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats.
Trade, transportation and immigration are high on the council's list of priorities, Keeling said. The council focuses on regulatory and legislative issues for the industry.
Easing the restrictions on the use of potatoes in school breakfasts are another priority, Keeling said.
"Technically, they're allowed in there now, but you have to serve two 'underserved' vegetables before you can serve a potato," said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission. "What other vegetables do you eat for breakfast? Are you going to eat kale or cauliflower for breakfast? Probably not, so essentially we've been knocked out of the school breakfast program."
Language in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill would ease the restrictions, but Congress has not approved the bill due to the conflict over President Trump's border wall funding, Voigt said.
Keeling will retire June 30 after more than 18 years with the council. He said he is proudest of how the industry has organized and used its strengths — potato farmers active in 14 to 15 states — to build political momentum.
"The core of it is the cohesiveness of the growing regions to work together," he said.
The council is searching for a new CEO, in hopes of bringing a new person on by the end of May, Keeling said.