The question American agriculture and the industries that rely on temporary workers must consider is whether a bad immigration reform bill is better than no bill? For the current legislative effort to remain viable the willingness of legislators to compromise is paramount. In its earliest form, the bill offered a guest worker program that appeared to be a positive step, yes in the right direction, but amendments added during the legislation’s full-throated debate cause much concern.
In its present form, the immigration reform effort is massive in scope and addresses border security, which is a national security issue; what to do about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., a law enforcement issue; and immigration reform, which addresses the issues of earning citizenship, establishing a workable guest worker program and a viable electronic tracking system for employers to access. Each component presents exceptionally complex challenges for lawmakers who are also trying to appease their political supporters.
That immigration reform is desperately needed in the U.S. is not debatable. For the past six months, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has raided several companies, many of them food processors, which rely on migrant workers. Each raid provides good evidence underscoring how dysfunctional the nation’s immigration laws and their enforcement are. Companies whose hands are tied as to what they are allowed to ask prospective employees are often the focus for blame.
The original legislation, which fell short of garnering enough support to end debate and bring it to a vote, established a "path to citizenship" that would allow temporary workers to earn points and apply for citizenship once enough points are accrued. Because of the food industry’s dependence on temporary labor, agricultural workers would be entitled to receive the maximum number of points available and they would be the first to receive their green cards at the end of the period, which is estimated at eight years.
The legislation also establishes a new temporary worker program for workers not seeking citizenship. The bill initially allowed for the issuance of 400,000 visas annually with an escalator clause that would allow up to 600,000 visas to be issued in a year if the economy shows the need for the labor and an inability to attract U.S.-born workers.
The first red flag was raised by Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who led in securing passage of an amendment limiting the number of guest worker visas issued each year to 200,000.
"The guest worker program in this bill is unproven and untested, and I’m very concerned about what it will do to wages in our country," Senator Bingaman said.
Another amendment winning approval set a limit of 5 years on the guest worker program.
By having to deal with such a low limit on the number of guest worker visas available, businesses relying on migrant labor may find themselves in the same bind as this year when the availability of farm workers across the country was unusually tight.
President Bush has made immigration reform a priority as his second term winds down. Just getting the legislation back on the Senate’s docket has cost him political capital and it remains to be seen how effective his administration will be in working with both the reformers and the hardliners to reach a compromise.
Caught in the middle of this difficult situation are the nation’s food producers and processors who have lobbied extensively for sensible immigration reform. The evolution of this bill must be watched closely. Otherwise, food producers and processors may find themselves regretting what they have wished for.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 26, 2007, starting on Page 9. Click