February 5, 2016

Where Have The Statesmen Gone?

I have said many times that the politics of immigration reform can be summed up by the following maxim: “Democrats want immigrants to vote and not work, Republicans want immigrants to work and not vote.”

While this adage may be an oversimplification, it characterizes the ideological divide that has prevented any type of meaningful immigration reform from passing Congress in nearly three decades.  Rather than working together to repair an obviously broken system, we have instead seen our elected officials trade barbs and retreat to their partisan corners.

As long as I’ve been with Western Growers, we have acknowledged that many of our farmworkers are falsely documented.  We have also asked to be part of the solution, one that strikes a reasonable balance between the “policy priorities” of both parties.

For example, we can support the border enforcement and federal worker eligibility verification demanded by Republicans, but we must first have access to a legal, stable supply of labor for our fields.  This means that our existing skilled workforce must be provided with the right to remain in this country, to earn some type of legal status, whether that takes the form of a work permit or an opportunity to apply for citizenship.

This also means that we must have a market-based visa program that works cooperatively with, not obstinately against, agriculture to ensure a future flow of guest workers to do the types of farm jobs Americans will not do.

Unfortunately, the last serious effort at immigration reform collapsed back in 2014 prior to the midterm elections, and no serious negotiations have taken place since.  And while House Republicans lay the blame at the feet of President Obama, they must share in the blame.  The truth is, in the aftermath of Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat that June, very few House Republicans have been willing to take a vote on immigration reform for fear of being outflanked by Tea Party opponents.

Yet the rhetoric from House Republicans remains: “We support immigration reform…just not this year.”  We are in an election year, they tell us.  We’ll take it up again in 2017, they tell us.  We know from experience to be skeptical.  Even if Republicans retain control of the House, the Tea Party is not going away so they will unable to muster 218 votes unless they get support from Democrats, which they don’t want because of the price they would have to pay for that support.

But House Republicans are not the only ones refusing to take serious aim at resolving bottom line issues facing our members.  Last year, as the year before, most of the Democrats in California’s congressional delegation scuttled yet another attempt to pass bipartisan legislation that could have assuaged the economic and human damage being caused by the ongoing drought.

After months of negotiations that involved major concessions from the House Republicans—including acceptance of federal funding for recycling and desalination projects and acquiescence to environmental demands regarding the San Joaquin River restoration program—it was a case of déjà vu.

Instead of pursuing a rational solution that could have eased the Delta pumping restrictions while maintaining the integrity of the biological opinions under the Endangered Species Act, they walked away from the bill.  Consequently, the El Niño rains that are falling outside my window as I write this column will wash out to sea rather than be judiciously collected and stored for future times of need.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently met with me and many other parties to discuss her new legislative approach to this problem, so maybe 2016 will produce some real help that moves more water to farms and cities south of the Delta.

My conclusion is this: On our two most important public policy priorities, we are being harmed by the refusal of both parties to act boldly—Republicans on immigration reform (especially in the House of Representatives) and Democrats (in both the Senate and House) on water supply.

My solution is this: We need fewer politicians and more statesmen.  We need individuals willing to set aside overriding personal ambition and political ideologies and take the kinds of risks that leadership demands.  Central to the concept of leadership, at least in the American system of representative democracy, is the art of compromise.  Nothing gets done without it.  Does anyone believe our Constitution and Bill or Rights were drafted without statesmen making compromises they found exceedingly difficult?

As a child, I was frequently admonished by my parents to remember that, “you can’t always get what you want.” The Rolling Stones said the same thing, and they added this key reality: “If you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

Whenever competing interests are involved, as they are on immigration reform and water supply, no solution will satisfy every demand of every party.  Isn’t it about time our legislators took a page from the history books and remember what it took to make America great?  If not, I promise we will continue to remind them.