Immigration reform needs more than band-aid fix

Mar 15, 2013

As bipartisan momentum for immigration reform builds in Congress, leaders across the country and the political spectrum are joining forces to voice concerns.

Immigration compacts are spreading across a number of states, and are gaining support by agriculture, business and faith entities. The groups are calling on Congress to overhaul U.S. immigration policies by creating a fair path to legal status for illegal immigrants.

For example, Washington’s immigration request includes five principles for keeping families together, ensuring a strong economy and focusing local law enforcement efforts on criminal activities, rather than civil violations of federal code, such as immigration violations.

In Texas, a group of faith, law enforcement and business leaders gathered to launch the Texas Compact in late February. The group put together a declaration of principles to guide the immigration debate in Texas and urge immigration reform at the federal level.

The principles include emphases on law enforcement, families, the economy and a free society.

“We are hoping that this Texas Compact, led by faith leaders, social service leaders, education leaders and business leaders, will give [Congress] the courage to take the correct action and move forward comprehensive immigration reform,” said Mike Nichols, co-chair of the Texas Compact and retired senior vice president of administration and general counsel, Sysco Corp.

On March 4, the government began a new process, allowing illegal immigrants who have applied for visas and are the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens to apply for provisional unlawful presence waivers.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the new provisional unlawful presence waiver process applies to undocumented immigrants seeking family-based legal permanent residency. They can now apply for a provisional unlawful presence waiver while in the U.S. and before their immigrant visa interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad.

Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who were not eligible to change their status in the U.S. had to travel abroad and be found inadmissible at their immigrant visa interview before they could apply for an inadmissibility waiver.

The new process is expected to shorten the time U.S. citizens are separated from their immediate relatives while those family members go through the process of becoming lawful permanent residents of the U.S.

American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Bob Stallman testified before Congress in early March on the need for a new, modern guestworker program for agricultural operations.

“Labor shortages have been a significant challenge to U.S. agriculture for as long as I can remember,” Stallman wrote in a letter.

“But now, unlike the simpler days of my youth when we could just hire teenagers and retirees, farmers and ranchers are facing new challenges with labor issues. From border security concerns and state versus federal authority questions to I-9 audits and governmentcaused labor delays under the H2-A program, finding a reliable agriculture workforce is becoming more and more difficult,” he added.

Stallman pointed out the legal battles some states are facing and discussed legislation currently in place that is merely a “band-aid” for immigration reform.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation supports federal jurisdiction, as well as increased presence and cooperation of all branches of law enforcement on both sides of our borders, to eliminate border issue challenges facing many of our members, like theft, drug and human trafficking, as well as illegal crossing. We must secure our borders by the most technologically advanced means possible and in a way that has minimal impact on farmers and ranchers,” Stallman said.

“With proposed implementation of mandatory E- verify (a system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.) in our near future, an agricultural guest worker program that addresses farmers’ unique needs has become a necessity. AFBF will only support a mandatory E-verify program if there is a workable solution for agriculture. Absent that solution, if E-Verify is implemented, agriculture faces losing millions of dollars in productivity due to labor shortages,” he added.

The National Federation of Republican Women (NFRW) joined in the push to expedite immigration reform, create a viable guest worker program, and provide a legal path to residency or citizenship for illegal minors brought into the country and secure U.S. borders.

NFRW laid out its position in a resolution adopted by its board of directors on March 9.

The resolution maintains that the federal government has “refused to commit the resources necessary to adequately secure our physical borders” and has “failed to modernize (our immigration) system with available technology.” These failures have led to an increase in illegal immigration and an extremely dangerous border environment.

The resolution recognizes the need for a viable guest worker program that “documents guest workers and their families and requires them to pass health and criminal background checks, to be self-supporting, including the purchase of health and other required insurance, to pay taxes and to demonstrate a working knowledge of English in a reasonable amount of time in order to obtain permanent legal resident status.”

In addition, the resolution urges the federal government “to expeditiously establish criteria for young people in this country illegally through no fault of their own to earn legal resident status or citizenship when they demonstrate English fluency and knowledge of American civics, comply with all health requirements, have no criminal record, graduate from an accredited high school, and pursue a college degree, trade certification or enter into military service.”

The resolution was proposed by the Texas Federation of Republican Women, which put together a committee of members who spent close to a year methodically researching the issue and carefully drafting the language of the resolution. The committee heard from and evaluated the positions of experts, recent immigrants, business and land owners, advocates, adversaries and law enforcement officials.

“The NFRW is committed to being at the forefront of finding solutions to our nation’s most pressing issues,” NFRW President Rae Lynne Chornenky says. “We are pleased that our members spent significant time researching, studying and evaluating immigration reform proposals, and provided the framework for this resolution.”

In February, representatives from a number of packing plants testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, pointing out that a visa program designed to allow immigrants to work in the U.S. on a seasonal basis does not help protein processors and other food manufacturing operations whose needs are yearround.

National Chicken Council (NCC) President Mike Brown testified on behalf of a broad food manufacturers coalition, including talking about the need for a stable and permanent workforce that can help sustain the rural communities where meat and poultry facilities operate.

Brown, in his testimony, highlighted five major themes for immigration reform on which the coalition is focused: border security; a very simple improvement to the E-verify system as an alternative to a national identity card; clarity in antidiscrimination laws; an occupational visa category that the meat and poultry industry can use that could be tied to local or regional employment; and, options to effectively address the 11 million undocumented workers in the shadows of our economy.

“Some think there is an economic incentive for manufacturing employers to hire illegal immigrants at below-market wages,” Brown continued. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Our industry needs a stable workforce. We seek workers who will stay on the job long enough to become skilled and efficient, helping us to keep our food products and employees safe.”

In terms of strengthening employment verification, Brown noted that the government does not provide employers with a reliable verification method to prevent identity fraud and confirm whether new hires are legally authorized to work in the U.S. “E-Verify is a step in the right direction but does not work adequately in its current form,” he said. “If strengthened, this program will serve as an effective and efficient ‘virtual border.’” Brown said that the current system, however, does not account for the meat and poultry industry’s most common issue, identity fraud, e.g. a valid Social Security number that does not relate to the person presenting it. In addition to documents such as a driver’s license or social security card which are easily falsified, the coalition believes employers should be allowed to require an E- Verify Self Check. E-Verify Self Check is an online service that allows U.S. employees to check their employment eligibility in the U.S. before beginning a new job.

In return for participating in these and other aggressive screening programs, Brown said that the coalition supports providing a safe harbor for employers who utilize the E- Verify Self Check and follow the automatic referral process. “An employer that does everything possible to avoid hiring unauthorized aliens should not be exposed to further liability,” he contended.

Continued access to the labor pool is also a key element of the coalition’s framework for immigration reform. “An effective occupational visa system may be the most important barrier to illegal immigration,” Brown said. “The right visa system with the right screening tools will, in effect, be a second ‘virtual border.’” The eight senators working on immigration reform have been somewhat vague about the future plans. Dubbed the “Gang of Eight,” the senators hope to avoid the gridlock that seems to plague the Capital.

“I tell you what, this is one of the best experiences I’ve had. Everybody’s serious, everybody’s knowledgeable, they’ve been around the issue,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, who’s up for re-election next year and facing a potential GOP primary challenge from the right. He said it’s “sort of what I came up here to do—sit down with serious people to solve serious and hard problems.”

In addition to Graham, the gang includes Sens. Marco Rubio, R-FL; a potential 2016 presidential candidate; Dick Durbin, D- IL; Jeff Flake, R-AZ; Michael Bennet, D-CO; John McCain, R-AZ; Chuck Schumer, D-NY; and Robert Menendez, D-NJ.

The group meets when the Senate is in session, and continues to avoid media and others looking for information on how their discussions are going.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,” McCain has said.

“It’s nice to be in a room where people are actually trying to solve problems and accomplish something,” said Bennet.

The legislation the group is working on would secure the border; provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, contingent on a secure border first; crack down on employers; and improve legal immigration. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor