When the opening bell rang on 2014, optimism was high that immigration reform, including a guest worker program, would become law before the closing bell of this year. That optimism is long gone with the chance of comprehensive legislation anytime soon pretty much off the table.
“The optimism I have had for each of the last 12 years is gone,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, in early November before President Obama announced that he was using executive authority to address some immigration issues. “Last year I thought the House would pass something…probably not the Senate bill, but I thought they would pass something that could be taken to conference and we’d eventually have comprehensive immigration reform. I am not optimistic that is going to happen this year.”
Nassif’s optimism a year ago appeared to be well-founded. The Senate had passed a bipartisan bill with more than two-thirds of the 100 senators voting in the affirmative. Production agriculture, led by Nassif and several others in the fresh produce sector, had helped hammer out the accord so that it was agreeable to many different factions including labor and business, conservatives and liberals, and foes and proponents of a path to citizenship. It was truly a compromise bill.
The Republican House appeared poised to pass a bill with increased border security and fewer rights for the falsely documented, but a bill nonetheless.
What happened? “The Republican leadership (in the House of Representatives) just couldn’t find anything that could get 218 Republican votes and they didn’t want to pass a bill that needed a majority of Democrats for passage,” said Nassif.
So no bill was ever brought to a vote, much to the discomfort of Western Growers and all of agriculture as well as immigration reformers around the country.
Coming off their big midterm election wins that saw the Republicans gain control of the Senate and increase their hold on the House of Representatives, Nassif said there is little indication that immigration reform will be a top priority. In the week since the election, Nassif said Republicans are saying that the president’s executive action on immigration will poison the well and make passage more difficult. The WG president said at this point you have to take both Obama and Republicans at their word and guess that immigration reform will probably not pass in 2015. “It hasn’t passed for the past 12 years, and there is no reason to think this year will be any different,” he said.
The Western Growers lobbyists who work the halls of Congress on a daily basis for the association agree with Nassif’s assessment. “The Lame Duck session (short legislative session that started in November and could stretch into mid-December) is certainly not going to touch it,” said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for the association. “And the new Congress (which takes office in early January) is going to address many other issues first. There may be a window of opportunity, but it’s going to be short.”
He said that once the candidates for president on the Republican side of the ledger start to line up by late spring or early summer, compromise on such a controversial bill will be very difficult. And compromise will be the key with the Republicans in charge of the House, less than 60 votes in the Senate and staring at the veto pen in the White House.
Ken Barbic, senior director of federal government affairs for WG and immigration reform point person for the group’s Washington, D.C., office, can see a scenario for action, but he also is not optimistic. “Now that the president has acted, the question is, does it leave political space for the Republicans to do something.”
While the Republican leadership gave lip service to “poisoning the well” if the president takes unilateral action, there are many political pundits who believe Republicans need immigration reform more than Democrats if they have any hope of winning back the White House in 2016. Nassif is in that camp.
“They did great in the midterm elections,” he said. “But the demographics of who votes in a presidential election and who votes in the midterms is different. The minority party almost always does well in the midterms. The presidential election will be different. It’s going to be much harder (for Republicans) to prevail.”
Statistics back up Nassif’s viewpoint. Those who have closely calculated past elections and the increasing Latino vote believe that the Republican presidential candidate needs to get about 43 percent of that vote nationally to win the White House. Even in the midterm elections, which tend to bring out voters that lean away from the sitting party, Republican candidates garnered around 35 percent of the Latino vote nationally. Nassif said that’s not going to be enough and indicated the party needs to address the immigration reform concerns of Latinos if it expects its presidential candidate to win.
Though the WG president vented his frustration at the Republican Party for its inaction on immigration reform, he said most in agriculture still support the party because of its position on many other issues. For most in agriculture, immigration reform is not a litmus test, he said.
However, Nassif did reiterate that frustration, especially with the lack of understanding of agriculture’s position on the subject. On the day of this conversation (Nov. 11), Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who may become the new chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said once the new Congress convenes he will introduce legislation that would include a guest worker program to reduce incentives for illegal immigration. He said his legislation would build on work already done by Congress, including measures aimed at beefing up border security. Johnson said he would move his border bill “as quickly as we can” once the new Congress convenes. He said he supports solving the immigration system one issue at a time.
Nassif took issue with the premise that a guest worker program is the main concern of agriculture. “Some people think all we care about is getting temporary workers to work in our fields. That just isn’t true,” he said. “Our number one concern is our existing workforce, who are very loyal to us and are hard-working productive members of society. We want to see them gain legal status.”
With regard to the unilateral executive order by President Obama, Nassif said Western Growers will carefully consider the actions and determine if it is in the best interest of agriculture to support it. He presumes that if the president’s order ceases deportations, it would also mean the end of ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) raids “on our farms and on our employees. That would be a good step and we could support that.”
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