SN Year in Review 2007: Immigration Efforts Stumble

IT'S BEEN A YEAR OF BAD news for supporters of immigration reform. In a June statement acknowledging Congress' most recent failure to pass a comprehensive bill addressing the issue, President Bush said legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress' failure to act on it is a disappointment. The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes

IT'S BEEN A YEAR OF BAD news for supporters of immigration reform. In a June statement acknowledging Congress' most recent failure to pass a comprehensive bill addressing the issue, President Bush said “legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress' failure to act on it is a disappointment. The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground — it didn't work.”

In an era of intense partisanship, it would seem difficult to imagine how legislation championed by both President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., could fail to “find a common ground,” but this has proved to be an unusually challenging issue.

Hard-line opponents of immigration reform have several legitimate complaints. They argue that the U.S. borders are still too porous, allowing criminals and potentially terrorists to cross into the U.S. as easily as migrant workers. Also, many residents of rural towns have watched the face of their communities change drastically in recent years, and question how such a sudden influx of new residents is weighing on their local schools and infrastructure.

For businesses that favor reforms and guest worker programs, the concerns are just as clear. Farms and processing plants are generally located in rural areas, and farm work, in particular, is seasonal and temporary. These factors make it difficult for these companies to fill their positions with American workers.

An October feature in The New York Times illustrated the problem in a nutshell. In the weeks after a November 2006 raid netted the arrests of 21 illegal immigrants at Smithfield's Tar Heel, N.C., pork processing plant, more than 1,100 Hispanic workers — about 20% of the plant's total work force — left their jobs. The company has worked hard to attract replacements, but even with starting salaries at $10.75 an hour, the work is grueling and the plant is a long interstate drive from large regional cities, such as Raleigh-Durham and Columbia, S.C. As a result, turnover for new hires has more than doubled during the past year, with 60% of workers quitting within their first three months.

With Washington deadlocked on the issue, many local politicians view plant and farm raids as an expedient way to demonstrate to locals that they're engaged with the problem and they're doing something about it. And so these economically disruptive raids have targeted businesses throughout the country, making local headlines, but doing little to address most of the key concerns that reform opponents are voicing, and even less to develop a lasting solution to the problem.

Unfortunately, immigration reform is an issue that lends itself to oversimplification and caricature, and it is beginning to look like the situation will get much worse before it gets better. Notably, states are already taking the matter into their own hands. Arizona this week will begin enforcing a new two-strike law, which will suspend the business licenses of any employers the state believes has knowingly hired undocumented immigrants, and revoke those licenses after a second offense. Ironically, in a state with a 3.3% unemployment rate, the law will give some growers enough incentive to move to a place where labor is cheaper and there's less oversight to worry about — across the border in Mexico.

Industry trade groups such as the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association continue working to promote legislation like AgJOBS. Otherwise known as the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2007, the bill would make it easier for temporary, foreign workers to obtain H-2A work visas for the agriculture industry. And it would allow non-citizens who have been working in agriculture for two years, legally or illegally, to file for the documentation they would need to work for growers for a period of three to five years. These industry groups argue that better documentation would make foreign workers easier for the government to track, while easing the industry's labor crisis and freeing up border security to focus on more pressing issues.

Other, similar bills have been presented to the House and Senate this year as well. Congressmen Luis Guiterrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in March introduced the STRIVE Act, or Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy. In May, another reform package, called the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, was introduced by a larger bipartisan group of Senate leaders. The bills themselves indicate that many legislators still consider the issue a pressing matter, agreeing that migrant labor is vital to growers and processors, and that real border security will be difficult to achieve without developing a reliable employment verification system, an effective program for law-abiding guest workers and a significantly more efficient system that productive immigrants can use to earn legal status.

The fact that all three bills failed to gain broader support among lawmakers in 2007 is clearly a less hopeful sign. And, with a major election year now under way, near-term prospects for reform look increasingly dim.