On Capitol Hill: Immigration Hangs in the Balance By Craig J. Regelbrugge

During August, U.S. Senators and Representatives were charged with spreading their party's message on the state of health reform in Congress through a series of town-hall meetings. The highly-publicized, volatile meetings that took place were meaningful enough to give some of the more moderate or politically vulnerable Democrats pause regarding their support of President Obama's top legislative priority. Fearing dwindling public support, the president addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9 to emphasize the importance that the administration places on the success of this legislative initiative. This represented a step rarely taken, outside of the State of the Union, except in times of great crisis or even war.

While few are predicting the outcome or timing of the health care debate, it clearly threatens to consume most of the legislative calendar for the remainder of 2009. Where this leaves other Congressional leadership priorities — such as climate change and immigration reform — during the 111th Congress is uncertain.

As Congress returned from its August recess, the state of play on health care was as follows:

House of Representatives: The three primary committees of jurisdiction finished their version of comprehensive reform in the form of H.R. 3200. Included in that version is a public option for health coverage, employer mandates for coverage and some notable cost-shaving amendments stemming from negotiations with fiscally conservative "Blue Dog Democrats."

Senate: The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee has approved its version of a reform package. The death of committee chairman Sen. Ted Kennedy has given Democrats some hope that the late senator's dream of health reform would provide a rallying point. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, has introduced a separate framework for health reform that resulted from bipartisan negotiations among members.

Where Does That Leave Immigration?

So while the halting progress of the health care debate will shape whether and when the 111th Congress will get to immigration, prominent Congressional leaders have made clear their support for tackling immigration reform as well. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, has stated repeatedly that immigration reform is among that chamber's top three priorities. New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, has initiated development of an immigration bill and reached out to both Democrats and Republicans. Schumer knows the dynamics of the issue well; in 1986, he was a key dealmaker that negotiated special provisions for agriculture, breaking a deadlock and allowing for the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which Ronald Reagan signed into law.

The Green Industry's Position

In spite of the confusion surrounding legislative priorities on immigration reform, the reform priorities advocated by ANLA and national, regional and state green industry association allies remain clear. First, a good immigration reform plan needs to provide improved legal channels to ensure an adequate legal workforce in the future. The current recession aside, simple demographics demand this: The U.S. workforce is aging, and the birth rate is declining. For growers, part of the answer will be found in overhauling the H-2A agricultural worker program with the negotiated bipartisan reforms of the so-called AgJOBS bill.

A solution is also needed to address the status of unauthorized but otherwise law-abiding workers. As many as three out of four farm workers (including nursery and greenhouse workers) are believed to be unauthorized. Many have been employed for years and are paying taxes, Social Security and Medicare through payroll deductions. Many have deep roots in this country. An earned legalization program that allows these workers to earn residency status over time by meeting strict conditions is both practical and essential. Again, the AgJOBS legislation (H.R.2414 and S.1038), which has broad bipartisan support in Congress, would allow experienced farm workers to earn legal status over time if they meet strict conditions.

Ongoing enforcement makes immigration reform especially urgent. Though tactics have changed, the Obama administration has not slacked off on immigration enforcement. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has announced plans to conduct a record number of I-9 audits. While not the stuff of front page headlines, these audits can cause economic havoc and human misery when an employer is directed to fire trained and trusted workers.

The longer Congress defers action on immigration, the more intractable the problem becomes. Whether it is done comprehensively or piece by piece, Congress and the president need to tackle the issue, not kick the can further down the road.

Craig J. Regelbrugge

Craig J. Regelbrugge is vice president for government relations at the American Nursery & Landscape Association. He can be reached at [email protected]

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