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News & Media: Staff Columns

Prospects for immigration reform dim, but hope still flickers

Tuesday, March 13, 2018   (0 Comments)
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By John Holevoet, director of government affairs

The push for meaningful change to our immigration system is still alive, but it has been dealt setbacks recently. The situation is fluid and will most likely change more between when I write this and when you get it in your mailbox.

The U.S. Senate recently took a swing at immigration reform and missed. Democratic senators forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, to allow for a debate on immigration. Their tactic involved a short-lived government shutdown in January caused by holding up a funding extension. They relented on the spending bill, but that was because of the promised debate on immigration.

While this debate gave both sides opportunities to grandstand and did produce a handful of bills that usually dealt with a solution for DACA recipients (often called dreamers) and border security, none of them could reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to pass out of the Senate. Also, none of these bills contained provisions that would specifically target the labor crisis facing America’s dairy farmers.

For a bill that would do that, you need to look to the House of Representatives and the Securing America’s Future Act (SAFA). This bill has a lot of components. It would limit legal migration by ending the diversity visa lottery, curtailing so-called chain (family-based) migration and other measures. It would strengthen border security through various policy changes and funding for new programs and infrastructure.

Most importantly, the bill contains provisions from Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s AG Act, an agricultural labor-specific bill introduced last year. Edge came out in support of the bill as a concept, while recognizing the bill language still needed to be refined.

Chairman Goodlatte’s plan would create a new H-2C visa program for year-round ag workers. It would allow for an initial 36-month stay with the opportunity for extensions. The program could be utilized by many existing workers and new employees. There is also an overall cap on how many people can participate, although a mechanism is in place to allow that number to grow over time.

There would be minimum wage and insurance requirements for H2-C visa holders. The program also has touchback and wage withholding requirements to ensure that workers maintain ongoing ties with their home country. The program was designed to be linked to broader implementation of E-Verify requirements for all employers, including those in agriculture.

Several amendments were made to the original legislation as it emerged from the House Judiciary Committee, which made it less favorable for farmers and our immigrant workers. It is this less favorable language that made its way into SAFA.

The latest proposed amendments would improve the H2-C program by offering farmers more time to comply with E-Verify and extending the length of visa renewals. Edge and other agricultural groups are urging additional improvements to make the program more functional and appealing.

SAFA, other immigration proposals and a way forward on this issue are all on the agenda for Edge’s D.C. trip at the end of March.

SAFA recently received nods of approval from American Farm Bureau and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. It has also been championed by members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have typically been among the hardest Republican votes to win over on immigration-related proposals.

It is unknown whether the proposal has enough votes to make it out of the House. Based on the failure of several recent immigration proposals in the Senate, SAFA’s fate is even more uncertain there. In its current form, it is unlikely to garner more than one or two Democratic votes, which will leave it short of the 60 votes it needs.

The failure of SAFA would likely mean that immigration reform has been delayed again and we will have to wait until after the fall election for another chance to make the changes our farmers need.  

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