By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- Business and agricultural groups that have struggled in recent years to get congressional action on immigration reform are counting on 2017 being different once the embers of the 2016 presidential election begin to cool.
Presidents from the American Farm Bureau Federation and Western Growers helped launch the "Reason for Reform" campaign on Wednesday with new reports showcasing the role of immigrants, documented or otherwise, across the country in areas ranging from agriculture and construction to startup businesses. The business groups believe local stories and data will help "push the needle on immigration reform," said John Feinblatt, chairman of the Partnership for a New American Economy.
The business leaders said the goal to push congressional action next year needs to start now because immigration is a central issue in the election.
"No matter who wins in November, it surely will be at the top of the 2017 agenda," Feinblatt said.
The presidential candidates from the two major parties could not be more different on immigration. Democrat Hillary Clinton has called for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million to 13 million people living in the U.S. illegally. Republican Donald Trump began his campaign by arguing the country needs a wall along the southern border to stop illegal immigration. Trump also wants to tighten immigration controls for Muslims and would increase deportations.
Business groups made a similar push after the 2012 presidential election. The Senate passed a bill in the summer of 2013, but the House did not act. President Barack Obama then added to partisan divisions by adopting executive orders temporarily blocking deportation of children and their parents. Those orders fueled more gridlock and were blocked in federal court after a split Supreme Court deadlocked in a 4-4 vote earlier this summer essentially reaffirmed a lower court decision ruling against the president's actions.
Despite the deep partisan division, business and agricultural groups stress the need for labor to get work done. The workforce for agriculture is shrinking, but the workload is increasing, said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Farmers are relying more heavily on the H-2A agricultural guest-worker program, but the H-2A is rife with paperwork and administrative issues that hinder harvest. "Every year, farmers face problems getting workers in a timely manner," Duvall said. "This kind of reform will take time."
In fiscal year 2015, the Department of Labor reported 139,832 H-2A workers filled positions around the country, a 16.5% increase over 2014. The number of H-2A requests and positions filled has been steadily increasing in recent years, particularly as states and the federal government have more frequently targeted illegal ag labor. More than 100 congressmen wrote the Labor Department in May demanding the department fix problems that are causing more backlogs with the program.
Additionally, H2A is a seasonal program that doesn't work for livestock operations such as dairy that need full-time, year-round workers. "We need a new, more flexible visa program that actually meets the needs of both farmers and workers," Duvall said.
In the meantime, Duvall said, the agricultural labor force, which is largely undocumented in status, needs to be allowed to stay and work. "We need an adjustment of status so that we can maintain that experienced workforce," Duvall said.
Duvall also stressed that any immigration legislation cannot simply focus on enforcement. Such efforts would deal a serious blow to agriculture and the rural economy, he said.
"It's important we continue to work our grassroots and put pressure on the local level," Duvall said. "We're coming to the point where the American people have to make up their minds if they want to import their food or import their labor. And I think the American people want their food grown in America. We need to be able to grow it and harvest it."
Tom Nassif, president and CEO for Western Growers, represents California and Arizona farmers who grow roughly 50% of the conventional and organic produce sold across the country and rely heavily on migrant labor for those crops. He said the labor shortage is becoming more chronic for his farmer members.
"We are probably experiencing the most critical labor shortage since I've been president of Western Growers," Nassif said. He added that farmers are anywhere from 20% to 70% short of the labor they need to harvest.
More farmers are fallowing ground, or can't harvest everything they have to produce, Nassif said. "There's a demand out there that can't be met."
Wages are going up, but that isn't adding people to the work force, he said. Nassif also noted there is little credibility to the argument that migrant farm workers are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens. Additionally, without reform, Americans are going to rely more on foreign produce, he said.
"Foreign workers are going to be harvesting our crops. The only question is whether they are going to be doing so in the United States or in a foreign country," he said.
Nassif also reiterated some comments from Duvall that farmers want to keep experienced workers in the country and not lose them to a deportation crackdown. "So we do want to have some sort of legal status for them," he said.
Nassif said business leaders recognize there's a strong argument that nothing will change because many of the same lawmakers will be returning to Congress next year. They aren't likely to change their minds, he said. One option business groups are exploring is to create a bipartisan effort among governors and former governors to press Congress.
"The states are the ones who have the heavy burden here," Nassif said. "They know what the economic and social burdens are in their states."
Randy Johnson, who works on immigration for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said most members of Congress are well-versed on the debate. Business people need to add to the arguments with new data and information.
"If Hillary gets elected, and if the door opens quickly, we'll be prepared to walk through it," Johnson said. "And if Trump's elected, we'll be prepared to respond to whatever arguments he uses on immigration."
More information about the business push for immigration reform can be found at www.renewoureconomy.org
Chris Clayton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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