Immigration Reform Stalled by Election Year PoliticsBy C. Bryan Little
Last spring, both Houses of Congress passed major immigration reform legislation with much fanfare. Those bills were touted as an attempt to control the massive flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Congress' passage of the Immigration in the National Interest Act could be the final act of a chain of political events set in motion by California voters' passage of Proposition 187 in 1992.
Before immigration reform advocates can declare victory, they have to steer the bill through a thicket of election-year political obstacles. Conferees charged with resolving differences between the Senate and House versions of the immigration reform bill will make policy decisions that will profoundly affect farm employers.
One major election-year political issue seems to be emerging as a potential immigration bill "deal killer." An amendment offered by Rep. Elton Gallegly, (R.-Calif.) would allow states to refuse to educate illegal alien schoolchildren. While popular especially in his home state, Mr. Gallegly's amendment has provoked a veto threat from the President and a threat of a filibuster in the Senate, potentially preventing Congress from passing a final version of the bill.
Congress dealt with a number of controversial issues in the immigration reform debate, many of which will directly affect agriculture. Both Houses voted for programs to require employers to verify a job applicant's eligibility to work in the United States by checking a federal government database, which may create shortages of agricultural workers. Both bills would step-up enforcement of laws governing immigration and employment of illegal aliens and significantly increase penalties for violations of the law.
Under certain circumstances, the Senate bill will allow federal prosecutors to seek forfeiture of a business if a supervisor hires an illegal alien without knowledge of the business' owner. The Senate bill also calls for hiring 700 new U.S. Department of Labor investigators, and will double penalties for businesses that have previously violated minimum wage or family and medical leave laws.
Business lobbyists are loathe to have government impose additional burdens on employers, but immigration reform advocates say employers are a magnet drawing illegal immigrants to the U.S., making stepped-up enforcement a priority.
The House decisively defeated an effort to create a new pilot program to admit temporary alien agricultural workers in the event that the underlying bill creates shortages. The Senate, however, directed the General Accounting Office to study whether shortages are likely to occur, and whether the existing program for admitting temporary alien agricultural workers is adequate to meet the potential need. If growers in California, Florida and elsewhere experience labor shortages this summer, Congress could be prompted to act this fall or next year.
Immigration reform is always a highly charged political issue. If members of Congress can find their way through a series of emotional immigration issues, they will be able to tout their accomplishment to the electorate this fall. If not, work will no doubt resume on immigration reform early in the 105th Congress.
C. Bryan Little is an agricultural labor specialist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C. Office.