The irony of Congress choosing to do nothing on immigration reform for fear of giving amnesty to undocumented workers is that doing nothing means amnesty.
The undocumented stay in place and the country is left without a commonsense immigration law that would provide a needed workforce for agriculture and other industries. The economy would suffer and some ag operations could move offshore.
“If Congress does nothing, it’s amnesty,” said Bruce Frasier, president of Dixondale Farms in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
Frazier, moderator of a panel discussing immigration reform during the recent Texas Produce Convention in San Antonio, said he’s asked legislators if they want a government “big enough to round up 12 million people.”
A better alternative, say he and panelists Ray Prewett, Texas Citrus Mutual and Texas Vegetable Association; James Terrell, Terrell Public Affairs; and Eddie Aldrete, International Bank of Commerce, would be immigration reform like the bill passed by the Senate.
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Prewett said if the House passes its own bill it will be different from the Senate’s version but he hopes a bill will be forthcoming so immigration reform will have a chance. He said some produce farmers have had to destroy crops this year because they could not get workers to harvest them.
One, Bernie Thiel of Lubbock, Texas, said he recently shredded eight acres of squash because of a labor shortage.
Prewett said the time is right for reform, even though much work remains to do in the House to convince legislators that immigration reform, including a guest worker program, is necessary.
As with other issues in Congress, immigration reform is riddled with politics. Some legislators do not want a guest worker program; others focus more on border security and some don’t want to provide amnesty to undocumented persons already in the country.
Aldrete said some of the politics makes little sense. He said a new coalition “Bibles, Badges and Business,” for instance, brings the faith community together with law enforcement and business entities to push for reform. The religious concern is for human well-being; businesses see the economic advantages of a strong workforce and law enforcement has indicated that some immigration legislation recently passed makes their jobs more difficult.
Also, demographics are changing. As the economy improves, local workers find better jobs and leave agriculture. At the same time, Mexico’s economy is growing—faster than the U.S.—and unemployment across the border is 4.5 percent.
“I can’t see why Congress would expect a steady flow across the border,” Terrell said.
Part of the resistance in the House comes from “safe seats,” Congressional districts that are not contested by the other party. “Republicans are more worried about primary challenges than the general election,” Prewett said. Consequently, they feel little pressure to act on issues as controversial as immigration reform.
“But if Republicans want a chance at the White House, they have to deal with immigration reform,” he said.
Panelists agreed that the Senate bill is not perfect but offers much of what agriculture needs, including a temporary worker program that offers a three-year visa to foreign workers. They can work in either a contract or at-will status. Contract work would be for a set period of time—long enough for tomato harvest, for instance—after which the worker can move on to another job.
At will workers can move from job to job, depending on pay or other favorable factors.
The bill requires farm employers to pay more. Frazier said field work pay would be set at $9.64 an hour. That goes to $9.84 for workers in packing sheds and similar facilities. Dairy and livestock workers get $11.37 and tractor drivers would be paid $11.87 per hour.
“Employers would have to pay local workers the same rate,” Frazier said. They would not have to pay Social Security and unemployment benefits but would be required to pay workers compensation.
Frazier said a proposal in the House would require holding back a percentage of guest workers’ wages to assure they would return to their home countries.
Prewett said some employers have concerns about the wage rates, indicating that needs could differ from one region to another. “The reason they set a national wage rate is that there is not enough good data available to develop a localized wage rate,” he said.
Frazier said employers could add another $2 per hour to the wage rate in lieu of providing housing.
Chances of getting a bill through the house and to conference this year are not good, Frazier said. “It’s maybe a 20 percent chance. It also becomes more difficult the closer we get to mid-term elections.”
“I’m a little more optimistic,” Prewett said. “There is more pressure to deal with immigration than there has been for a long time.” He said other employers are also more engaged. “The high tech industry is more involved,” he said.
Terrell said some Republicans may fear that the Obama administration may blame Republicans for not passing an immigration bill. “I think we have a better chance than in years to see immigration reform. During the August recess, weigh in with your legislators.