For years, agriculture has been seeking solutions to our broken immigration system. Since the election in November, we have seen a sea change on immigration reform. Republicans in Congress have become increasingly open to the fact that any reform will include giving legal status to the 11 million that are currently falsely documented, and Democrats recognize the need for guest worker programs and enforcement measures.
During the past few months, a gang of Senators and a separate group of House members have been working toward introducing legislation in both chambers. It is likely we’ll see draft legislation from one or both of these groups sometime in April with the House and Senate Judiciary committees taking up legislation over the spring, paving the way for possible floor consideration in June or July.
Last year, Western Growers participated in focused discussions with other agriculture associations representing a diversity of commodities and regions. The product of this work was the formation of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) and a unified position. The goal now is legislation that can be plugged into a comprehensive package or stand by itself. Western Growers has been working with partners in the AWC to see legislation introduced that will give legal status to our current workforce and provide incentives for them to continue working in agriculture. Additionally, this legislation will create a new agriculture worker program, moving beyond the broken H-2A program, and allowing for both contract and at-will employment arrangements for foreign workers.
Since December, AWC members have been in negotiations with Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and the United Farm Workers. Western Growers has played a leading role in these critical negotiations. Conclusion of these talks is an important step toward building bi-partisan support for ag immigration legislation.
While much of the work on this legislation is taking place in the halls of Congress, there is significant opportunity for involvement by our members at the state, local, and individual level. In fact, the most important efforts will not be those in Washington, D.C., but in towns and communities across America. Immigration reform will succeed or fail based in large part on what members of Congress perceive to be the climate in their home districts. Each of you can have an impact on this critical issue. Following are some suggestions for how YOU can get involved in the upcoming efforts on immigration reform, making a direct and tangible difference.
1. Tell your story. Nothing moves public opinion like concise and compelling stories. Do you have employees in your operation that have particularly compelling immigrant stories? Can you give concrete examples of how resolving this issue will benefit your operation and your community? Share these with local reporters and your congressman.
2. Talk to other leaders in your community. The list of potentials is long. Have you talked with your banker or your local tractor dealership? What about the county sheriff or district attorney? The local hospital president? Your pastor, priest, or other faith leader in your community? Local restaurant, hotel, or construction company owners? Your mayor or city council members? Each of these groups or individuals may bring a perspective and voice that adds positive support in your region. Significant efforts are underway nationally bringing business, law enforcement, and faith leaders together to speak to the necessity of sensible immigration reform. As you talk to these groups locally, consider how this can be done in your community. Working together can multiply effectiveness of these voices.
3. Pursue local media opportunities. Get to know the reporters (print, radio and television) that cover agriculture and immigration. Use social media to both follow the debate nationally and to communicate your message to local media.
4. Efforts locally should be focused on influencing members of Congress. So, have conversations with your U.S. representative or senator when they are in your district. Regardless of whether that member agrees with your perspective, they need to hear from you regarding the urgent need. If they favor an immigration solution ask how you can help expand support for them on the issue. If they are undecided or opposed, bring compelling stories of why action is imperative.
5. Attend town hall meetings with your member of Congress. Opponents of reform will attend and won’t be quiet about their views. You need to be ready to share your views and stories, and you should enlist others in your community that can speak positively to the issue.
6. Consider coming to Washington, D.C., for a two-three day direct lobbying visit. As the debate begins to unfold in Congress, Western Growers and other groups will be organizing opportunities for members to fly-in and speak directly to legislators and their key staff. Nothing communicates urgency on an issue like flying to our nation’s capitol and speaking passionately about how this issue effects your operation and your community.
7. Share what you learn. One of the most helpful things you can do for those of us representing your interests in Washington is to share what you learn or experience locally. Maybe your congressman made a surprising comment at a town hall meeting. Or an important person in your community that previously opposed immigration reform has changed their mind. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of such information and stories to those of us advocating for you in Washington.
This spring and summer, we have the best opportunity in years, and a very short window, to pass immigration reform. The issue is simply too important to Western Growers members to stand on the sidelines as spectators. Rest assured that the anti-immigration reform groups will be activating their grassroots networks and jamming congressional phone lines trying to kill common sense reform. All of us play a vital role in getting our message out.
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