Unfinished business: immigration reform

Alan Guebert

Like the weather, everyone talks about immigration reform but no one ever does anything about it.In fact, do-nothingness is the dominant trait of immigration lawmaking. A Google search of the phrase “ag immigration stalemate” delivers “about 621,000 results in 0.61 seconds” dating back to at least the mid-1990s.There was, however, a moment of movement last summer when key U.S. senators announced they were close to an immigration deal based on a 2021 House-approved bill. That bipartisan bill had opened “a pathway for foreign farm workers to obtain legal status for year-round work,” a critical need for any immigration bill to move forward, reported Politico last July.

But that effort soon stumbled for two very Capitol Hill reasons: an election year-shortened Senate calendar and border security. Senate Republicans had warned majority Democrats repeatedly that there would be no immigration bill without accompanying legislation to seal the porous U.S.-Mexican border.

Pushing the Senate effort even deeper into the background was the Republican hope to win the House and Senate in November. That twin win would deliver an immigration doubleheader: any current bill would die at the end of the Congressional session and, more importantly, the GOP would write a tougher, narrower replacement.

The Republican’s wafer thin 222-to-213 House majority lost its glow, though, after Senate Dems held their 50 seats and added one. That Congressional split portends little compromise on most issues in the next two years and all but guarantees inaction on any immigration reform.

Dimming those prospects even more is the open split among House Republicans over who will lead them when they gain the majority Jan. 3. So far, Californian Kevin McCarthy, hasn’t locked up the 218 votes he needs to claim the Speaker’s gavel.

No speaker means no lawmaking and no lawmaking means more stalemate for however long it takes the Republicans to elect a leader.

Sensing an end-of-the-year opening before the House Republican takeover, the Democrat leading the Senate immigration reform effort, Michael Bennet of Colorado, released an immigration bill Dec. 15. The Bennet bill, like the bipartisan 2021 House bill, features everything–and, frankly, more–than both sides say they need in any reform legislation.

The “everything” is the easy part; the “more,” however, imperils the bill’s chances for passage before New Year’s Day.For example, Repubs and Dems agree that the critical H-2A program, the temporary visa program that many farmers and ranchers depend on for legal, seasonal immigrant workers, will be expanded for three years. Bennet’s bill increases the current number by 26,000, with half reserved for dairy work. The visa number then increases by 15 percent a year for the six years thereafter.

Those rising numbers are a big reason why the National Milk Producers Federation quickly endorsed the Bennet bill.Other ag powerhouses, like the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), want even more visas now–as well as later–than the Bennet plan offers. But more visas, argue immigrant labor groups, means a bigger labor pool and, in turn, lower farmworker wages.

Another sticking point–in both the current Bennet effort and any new 2023 bill–is a “pathway to citizenship” for immigrant laborers and their families. Republicans call any pathway “amnesty,” superheating the reform debate with political fire.

But while the current Senate bill contains a citizen pathway, it’s a long one. In fact, according to Colorado Public Radio, the Bennet bill sets “up a program for farmworkers and their families to earn legal status after 10 years of work.”

“‘It’s definitely not instant citizenship or anything like that,’” a United Farm Worker labor union spokesman told Boise State (ID) Public Radio.

Definitely or not, it’s not the timeline to citizenship that bothers most Republicans; it’s the concept itself. They simply don’t want it.

Bennet says his bill’s reforms are “inarguable.” Passing it before year’s end “will be better for American agriculture… family farms… farmworkers… and our country.”

And very, very hard.

Worse, its defeat means the last best hope for immigration reform in 2022 will likely be the last best hope for immigration reform for years to come.