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May 8, 2019

The Football Gag: Will Immigration Reform Get Done This Year?

The “football gag” was a recurring joke featured in the comic strip, Peanuts. In the skit, Lucy van Pelt tells Charlie Brown that she will hold a football for him while he kicks it. After Charlie expresses some initial skepticism, Lucy always manages to persuade him to give it a try. Of course, every time Charlie approaches the football, Lucy pulls it away at the last second, causing him to fall flat on his back in pain. Lucy usually wraps up the gag by telling Charlie that he should not have trusted her.

While I doubt Charles Schulz was crafting a decades-long metaphor for immigration reform, many of us in agriculture may feel like Charlie Brown every time we hear talk of a legislative solution to our labor needs. Indeed, we have come close to passing immigration reform for agriculture several times in recent years—getting a bipartisan bill passed in the Senate in 2013 and working through a provocative push just last year—only to have the football pulled out from us again and again.

Perhaps I’m more like Charlie Brown than I like to admit, because despite a history that would suggest otherwise, I have real hope this will be the year Lucy finally holds the football in place. So… I’m lining up to take another kick.

In early April, I had the opportunity to testify before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. As part of a panel titled, “Securing the Future of American Agriculture,” I detailed the critical labor shortages facing the agriculture industry and laid out our two main priorities for immigration reform: a pathway to legalization for our current farmworkers and their immediate families that does not require a touchback, and a more flexible, efficient and market-based agricultural worker visa program to ensure a sufficient future flow of labor.

So, what makes this year different? Why should we be optimistic about our chances in 2019, especially in light of a President and Congress gearing up for a raucous 2020 election in which neither side seemingly stands to benefit from compromise on immigration reform?

To which I answer: Maybe this year is no different from the past. Maybe we are setting ourselves up for more disappointment. Maybe we should learn our lesson and refuse to believe Ms. van Pelt this time around.

On the other hand, I am reminded of a quote from the rough-riding 26th U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt (to paraphrase): “Nothing worth having comes easy.”

Translated into American politics, no great political, economic or social injustice has ever been corrected without a protracted struggle, without some group of individuals relentlessly advocating for change—which takes time and, usually, several failed attempts.

Consider the abolitionist movement, which can be traced back to our nation’s founding and the irresolvable question of how to treat the institution of slavery, and the slaves themselves, in the U.S. Constitution. While the resulting “Three-Fifths Compromise” preserved the precarious balance between the North and South, the continued practice of slavery in the Southern states provided nearly a century of moral fodder for abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. The aims of the abolitionist movement—an end to slavery and the securing of citizenship and voting rights for African-Americans—were not achieved until the Reconstruction Amendments following the Civil War.

Though not involved quite as long as the abolitionists, I have been working on immigration reform since the beginning of my tenure at Western Growers in 2002. Seventeen years later, we are still looking for a way to reconcile the economic needs of agriculture with the political needs of our Congressional representatives.

But, I am confident in our chances for success sooner rather than later. The political dynamics in Washington have shifted since the 2018 midterm elections. We are dealing with new players who do not seem interested in yanking the football away at the last moment. This necessarily means a bipartisan solution that addresses the concerns of the entire industry while also having a reasonable chance of garnering President Trump’s signature.

This also necessarily means a different approach by agriculture. As I concluded in my congressional testimony, our industry has been unsuccessful in getting immigration reform because we’ve been divided—in our goals and in our needs. Only by pledging allegiance to the collective needs of agriculture can we dissuade others from seizing upon these internal divisions and proffering legislation that does not meet the needs of the whole.

In other words, let’s heed the admonition of Benjamin Franklin to his fellow revolutionaries: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

In my remaining time at Western Growers, I pledge myself to achieving this unity among the disparate sectors of American agriculture, and to achieving a legislative compromise that meets the needs of the entire agriculture industry. At the end of the day, we are fighting to honor the American family farming legacy, and to secure the future of American agriculture. That is a cause worth yet another run at the football, even if I might wind up on my back again.