The comprehensive bill by House Democrats largely mirrors a Senate bill passed in June, although with changes to border-security provisions. House Republican leaders have spoken in favor of a piecemeal approach that prioritizes border security. The House Judiciary Committee has marked up a series of smaller bills that would set up an electronic employment verification system, add more high-skilled visas and bring in more temporary workers for agriculture, among other policy changes. However, none of the House immigration bills has come up for a floor vote.
Immigration reform advocates said they hope enough momentum will be created to have immigration reform addressed before Thanksgiving. If not, the fear is that midterm election politics will stop any progress on comprehensive reform.
CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little said it's "vital" for Congress to address immigration reform this fall.
"If they don't, there may not be another window of political opportunity until the second term of President Obama's successor, and that's eight years away," Little said. "That's another eight years of trying to get along with a broken system that doesn't address the needs of farmers or farmworkers."
Little, who also serves as chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, noted that it's impossible to predict how the next presidential administration will approach immigration law and immigration reform. An aggressive stance, he said, could lead to "even more aggressive auditing of agricultural employers" as enforcement agencies seek to deport employees who present legal-appearing documents even though they have entered the United States illegally.
"Anyone who's been through that process can tell you what a disaster that is," he said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation joined in urging Congress to pass an agricultural labor program that provides both short- and long-term stability.
"It's a way to keep our experienced workforce, while making sure we have access to a legal workforce through a streamlined and flexible guestworker program in the future," AFBF President Bob Stallman said. "Immigration reform is critical for the agricultural industry. Many farmers rely on an immigrant labor force and without reform, growers will begin to plant less labor-intensive crops or go off shore.
"Simply put, either we import our labor or we import our food," Stallman said.