Immigration reform back on the GOP itinerary

Jan 31, 2014

During President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he devoted just one short paragraph of his speech to what he considered his most important domestic policy during his second term—immigration reform.

“If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders and law enforcement—and fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said.

Despite his lack of coverage on the topic, a push is on for the House to produce legislation.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was less than pleased with the President’s lack of discussion on what he considers a priority topic.

“In one of the great traditions of our democracy, the President is invited to the House chamber each year to discuss how he and Congress can work together for the American people. After five years, President Obama is clearly out of ideas. With few bipartisan proposals, Americans heard a president more interested in advancing ideology than in solving the problems regular folks are talking about. Instead of our areas of common ground, the President focused too much on the things that divide us—many we’ve heard before—and warnings of unilateral action.

“The President must understand his power is limited by our Constitution, and the authority he does have doesn’t add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy. The real answer for the President is to refocus his priorities and work with us on the things that we can achieve together to create jobs and promote greater opportunity: expanded markets for American exports; a solution to our broken immigration system; better skills and education programs; patent reform; new energy and water infrastructure; or any of the dozens of other House-passed bills awaiting action,” Boehner said in a statement.

A 10-page White House fact sheet entitled, “Opportunity for All,” was released prior to the speech, listing “key executive actions” for the year, which included, “Fixing our broken immigration system.”

Last July, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that would allow undocumented agricultural workers to gain citizenship after working five years in agriculture. It also creates a guest worker program. But the House has yet to take on the topic.

“Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades,” Obama said during his speech. “And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams—to study, invent, and contribute to our culture—they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let’s get immigration reform done this year.”

Advocates for immigration reform shared their thoughts following the President’s speech.

“Many farmers rely on an immigrant labor force, and without reform growers will begin to plant less labor-intensive crops or go off-shore,” said Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman.

“Farm Bureau is urging Congress to pass an agriculture labor program with both short- and long-term stability. It’s a way to keep our experienced workforce, while making sure we have access to a legal workforce through a streamlined and flexible guest worker program in the future. Simply put, either we import our labor or we import our food.”

“Immigration reform is critical to farmers and ranchers across the country,” said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. “I hope Congress takes the President’s sentiments to heart and makes comprehensive immigration reform its next priority. This ought to be a priority for liberals, moderates and conservatives alike, as it will reduce the deficit by $1 trillion dollars in two decades.”

Last week, House Republican leaders were discussing plans to unveil a potential immigration reform plan.

Boehner expected Obama’s immigration outline would help get things moving with increased border security, changes to the visa system, a pathway to citizenship and more. According to reports, Boehner was looking at a series of immigration bills rather than one comprehensive legislative package.

According to reports, the President’s message on immigration did extend beyond his short note on the topic. Immigrants and immigration activists attended as guests of Congress and the First Lady. Mrs. Obama invited two immigrants to attend as her guests: Cristian Avila, a DREAMer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient who recently completed a 22-day fast on the National Mall in support of immigration reform; and Carlos Arredondo, a Costa-Rican- American peace activist made famous by his heroic acts after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Avila, 23, is one of the many thousands of recipients of DACA. Avila was illegally brought into the United States with his younger brother and sister when he was 9 years old. DACA is a government program enacted in 2012 that stopped deporting some undocumented young people and instead granted them temporary work authorization and a two-year reprieve from deportation. The recipients have become one of the most visible groups advocating for immigration reform.

The President also hinted at raising the minimum wage for some government contract positions, and said he would do so with an executive order, bypassing Congress. “Tonight, let’s declare that, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” Obama said.

Michael Harpold, a 35-year veteran Border Patrol inspector for the U.S.

Immigration and Naturalization Service said, “The guest farmworker program proposal pending in the House and Senate would actually perpetuate the cycle of poverty among domestic farm workers.”

Harpold pointed out some of the pros and cons of a somewhat similar plan the U.S. implemented in the 1940’s.

The bracero program was a series of laws and diplomatic agreements, initiated by an August, 1942 exchange of diplomatic notes between the United States and Mexico for the importation of temporary contract laborers from Mexico to the U.S. According to Harpold, the program hurt local farm workers by establishing an artificial wage, with immigrants willing to work for much less.

Harpold’s point: “We will never get out of (poverty) if we bring in immigrants.”

But top Republicans continue to publicly voice their support for amnesty and reform.

Kevin McCarthy, the third ranking Republican in the House, affirmed his personal support for amnesty, and hinted that the House leadership’s principals would follow this model, according to a Politico article. And Paul Ryan (R-WI), speaking at the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that the House would be moving immigration bills “in pieces,” and that he favors a way for illegal aliens to “come out of the shadows.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor