After 10 years of efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, with major parties at loggerheads and nothing substantive achieved, there has been a shift within the past several months that may bring positive results, says Tamar Jacoby.
“This is a very ripe moment in the political debate about agricultural labor,” she said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association, which focused on immigration issues and their impact on agriculture.
Jacoby, who is president and CEO of Immigration Works USA, a national federation of small business owners/growers working to advance better immigration law, says a major stumbling block for the past decade is that there has been little unity among the various stakeholders on how immigration laws should be reformed, and lawmakers have focused more on a total package than trying to solve the most pressing issues on a step-by-step basis.
“Agriculture was divided. California growers wanted something different from Southeast growers; the folks who were most focused on the legalization of visiting workers wanted something different than those focused on redesigning the government H2A Temporary Agricultural Worker program.
“Even among those focused on the temporary worker program, there was a lot of division there between those who wanted contract workers and those who wanted a more fluid, market-based system. There was bad blood between various groups, with a lot of vilification between coalitions.”
A seemingly popular AgJobs bill, negotiated between agriculture and labor groups in the 1990s, had a lot of bipartisan support, Jacoby says, “but the truth is, it was never as popular as it seemed. Many growers felt the legalization part of it was great, but that the future flow temporary worker part of it wouldn’t work. Many saw it as too union friendly to be workable for employers.
“But most importantly, it just couldn’t move in Congress, despite the fact it came up almost every year. There was a fundamental structural block — the all-or-nothing mentality that ‘There are many things broken in the agriculture labor system and we need to fix it all at once in one grand bargain.’
“The approach was that, for policy reasons, it didn’t make sense to fix one thing and not fix the others. But it was hard to get the votes to put such a bill over the finish line, and for 10 years no progress was made.”
Over the last six to nine months, all of this has been changing, Jacoby says, and prospects seem good for the beginning of positive incremental immigration reform.
“Politics is not a spectator sport – you need to get engaged,” she says. “Encourage those you know to get more involved. You really can help lawmakers and voters to understand the reality of the agricultural labor situation. You can make a big difference by shedding more on the truth about agriculture employers and their labor needs and clarifying it in voters’ minds.”