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April 2014, Volume 20, Number 2

Immigration Reform and Agriculture

House Republicans are divided on immigration reform, reducing prospects for enactment of comprehensive legislation in 2014 that would allow unauthorized foreigners to become legal US residents.

House leaders announced Standards for Immigration Reform in January 2014 that would increase border and interior enforcement before providing a path to legalization but not US citizenship for many of the 12 million unauthorized foreigners in the US. The principles state that unauthorized foreigners could "live legally and without fear in the US" if they "admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits)."

There would be an exception for unauthorized foreigners brought to the US as children. The Standards say that so-called DREAMers who "serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree" could become naturalized US citizens.

House leaders criticized the US immigration selection system, which gives priority to family unification, and embraced new and expanded guest worker programs that create "realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States" for foreign workers who "are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers." The Standards asserted that the agriculture industry is of "particular concern." The House principles assert that effective border security and interior enforcement must be in place before there is any legalization, and called for a "fully functioning entry-exit system" to identify visitors who overstay their visas.

Tea Party Patriots and the Heritage Foundation took credit for deterring House Republican leaders from moving forward in spring 2014, asserting that President Obama would selectively enforce any new immigration laws.

The Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training Act (ENLIST) rekindled debate over immigration reform among House Republicans in April 2014. ENLIST would allow unauthorized youth in the US before age 15 to join in the US military and be put on a path to US citizenship after their honorable discharge. House Republicans who support ENLIST say it shows they are sensitive to unauthorized foreigners and military needs, while opponents say that any House-passed immigration bill could lead to a conference committee with the Senate and a major legalization program.

The Senate approved the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S 744) on a 68-32 vote in June 2013, and the House Judiciary Committee approved four bills in June 2013 to increase enforcement against unauthorized migration and to modify guest worker programs for agriculture and IT. However, the full House did not approve any of these bills in 2013, so there was no conference with the Senate to resolve differences and approve an immigration bill.

Legalization. The major item of debate is whether and how many unauthorized foreigners should be offered a path to US citizenship and how arduous this path will be. S 744 laid out a 13-year path for currently unauthorized foreigners to become US citizens, with easier paths for DREAMER youth and unauthorized farm workers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that S 744 would legalize eight million unauthorized foreigners, including 1.5 million DREAMER youth, 1.5 million farm workers and five million others.

Any House-passed bill would likely limit the "special path" to US citizenship to DREAMER youth. The House may allow other unauthorized foreigners who receive a temporary legal status similar to that under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants two-year renewable work and residence status, to eventually become immigrants and US citizens under the current preference system, which makes immigrant visas available for family unification and to foreigners sponsored by US employers.

Migrant rights groups were divided on how hard to push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to US citizenship for most unauthorized foreigners. Most advocates for immigration reform continue to call for a path to US citizenship for almost all unauthorized foreigners. However, the United We Dream organization representing unauthorized youth said their top priority is to stop deportations, suggesting that they would accept the House legalization-without-citizenship option. United We Dream called for a halt to deportations of non-criminal unauthorized foreigners.

The Congressional Budget Office in March 2014 concluded that a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the House (HR 15) would have effects similar to S 744 approved in the Senate in 2013. If S 744 or HR 15 were enacted, the CBO estimates that the US population in 2023would be 10 million larger than it would be without immigration reform, and that eight million unauthorized foreigners in the US would gain legal status. Both bills "would probably boost economic output, increase average wages for the entire labor force after about a decade (but decrease them before that), raise the amount of capital investment, and increase the productivity of labor and capital."

Agriculture. Rep Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) in a March 3, 2014 interview with the Washington Post said that Agricultural Guestworker (AG) Act approved by the House Judiciary Committee in 2013 would "replace the broken H-2A program with a new, sensible guestworker program" that is "market-driven" and open to non-seasonal agriculture, including dairies, meat packers and aquaculture facilities.

Goodlatte continued: "President Obama's continued refusal to enforce our immigration laws is making immigration reform increasingly difficult. His record of inaction has caused a lack of trust among the American people and House Republicans."

The American Farm Bureau Federation released a report in February 2014 that predicted an increase in food prices of up to five percent over five years if stepped-up immigration enforcement led to labor shortages. The AFBF predicted that fruit production could drop by 30 percent to 60 percent, vegetable production by 15 percent to 30 percent, and livestock production by 13 percent to 37 percent.

The AFBF says that allowing foreign farm workers into the US with three-year visas would have little to no effect on food prices.

The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Partnership for a New American Economy conducted a "#IfarmImmigration" campaign in February-March 2014 to promote comprehensive immigration reform. The campaign featured a number of assertions about crop losses due to labor shortages and jobs that could be lost if immigrant farm workers were not available.

A report released in March 2014 estimated that a quarter of the increase in produce imports between 1998-00 and 2010-12 was due to farm labor shortages. The report suggested that immigration reform would increase US production of fresh fruits and vegetables by eliminating a shortage of 26,000 farm workers. US workers "may not possess the necessary stamina to perform physically taxing farm work or the specialized skills that develop from years of working in the fields," according to the report.

The report noted that imports of fresh fruits and vegetables rose in response to freer trade under NAFTA and other FTAs, but said that freer trade and farm labor shortages were equally responsible for rising produce imports.

The California Grape & Tree Fruit League asked its Board of Directors to rank the top issues for 2014, and five of the top 10 issues were labor-related. Immigration reform ranked first, followed by union and health and safety laws, health care was fourth, minimum wage increases fifth, and workers compensation eighth.

Sometimes seemingly minor events can trigger reactions among farm workers. Plans to build an Immigration and Customs Enforcement transfer station in Santa Maria for the 100 unauthorized foreigners detained each month after serving sentences for US crimes in the Lompoc federal prison triggered an outcry in Santa Maria, with some farm workers saying they would leave the area. ICE said that the transfer center did not presage raids on nearby vegetable and strawberry fields, but many farm workers are reportedly scared.

World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services. 2014. Gauging the Farm Sector's Sensitivity to Immigration Reform. February. Bronan, Stephen. 2014. No Longer Home Grown: How Labor Shortages are Increasing America's Reliance on Imported Fresh Produce and Slowing U.S. Economic Growth.

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