At the dawn of President Barack Obama’s first term four years ago, Rich Stolz lent his organizational skills to a national campaign to resolve the immigration debate in Congress.
The multimillion-dollar effort — lobbying and coalition-building among labor, business, community, and immigration rights groups — drowned under a wave of partisanship and gridlock just as the health care debate took center stage.
“There was a point in time toward the end of the health care debate that the opportunity for bipartisanship was out the window,” recalled Stolz, the recently appointed executive director of the immigrant rights group OneAmerica of Seattle. “Immigration was a victim of that.”
But this time, the playing field is much different. Stolz will be back in Washington, D.C., early next month for a meeting of interest groups to craft a strategy they hope will finally put immigration reform over the top.
“Key conservatives are coming out in droves talking about the need for immigration reform and legalizing the undocumented. That is a new development,” Stolz added. “It feels very different than it did just two or four years ago.”
Comprehensive immigration reform — a path to citizenship, making the current guest worker program more user-friendly and securing the country’s borders — is seen as having a better chance next year because Obama made it a priority in his re-election victory speech. Republicans, who have long disliked talk of amnesty or a path to citizenship for the undocumented, are also talking about reform in the aftermath of the party’s huge defeat among Latino voters. Hispanic voters went for Obama 3-to-1 in the Nov. 6 general election.
Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council and a keen observer of the political landscape, described himself as cautiously optimistic that overall reform can happen next year. The Yakima-based council represents Northwest tree-fruit growers on regulatory and trade issues.
“I personally think the GOP has an interest to have immigration reform. The party has to expand its base to win a national election. To do that, the clearest opportunity is in the Hispanic voting area,” he said. “There is a better possibility that sometime next year there will be serious action on comprehensive immigration reform. When political needs meet, sometimes you can accomplish things.”
Some estimates suggest as much as 70 percent of the agricultural workforce is in the country illegally. Growers found themselves short of labor last year when portions of the Washington apple crop went unpicked and again this past spring with asparagus.
Apple growers this fall juggled harvest, moving to get higher-valued varieties off the trees first because the labor supply was as much as 20 percent short in a record harvest. Some were still picking Red Delicious apples as late as last week.
There is concern the labor outlook will only worsen without reform.
Ric Valicoff, a Parker Heights grower, said some growers had difficulty during the Gala apple harvest getting the fruit off before its internal condition became a factor.
“I think it will be a problem in the future with more and more fruit,” he said. “There is a bigger demand on ag labor. We are cutting it up in a lot of different directions. When we have a big crop and everything collides, there are only so many people to pull in different directions. It’s not easy to manage.”
Schlect and Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League of Yakima, have worked on immigration issues for years and are aware of the pressure on labor. Both have held leadership positions in the National Council of Agricultural Employers, a 300-member group that is working on immigration.
Gempler, whose group works on labor issues on behalf of its members, cautioned that despite the election results and Republican leaders expression of support for a solution, much opposition remains within the GOP to amnesty for undocumented workers.
“Maybe there is a greater possibility (of success), but I don’t know what the reaction will be within the party,” he said. “There has been a core of people who are opposed to granting legal status to anyone unless they do it through existing channels. Even though some Republicans are now talking about an immigration reform package that would do that, there is still substantial opposition within the party. I can’t predict the outcome.”
The council’s executive vice president, Frank Gasperini, said he hopes positive statements about reform from House Speaker John Boehner, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, and New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, are a sign lawmakers are serious.
“I don’t think anything will happen until February. If the major players like Schumer, Graham and Boehner keep talking about it, that is a good sign,” Gasperini said. “If the issue goes away and the food fight over the budget and taxes continues into March, April and May, maybe the signs aren’t as hopeful.”
The president added weight Wednesday, telling a White House news conference he expects to see a reform bill introduced shortly after his inauguration.
Gasperini said interest groups already are working on the outlines of what might be included in a comprehensive bill. The ag community will need to work closely with business where, in some cases, the goal is to assure that highly skilled workers can be allowed to enter the country.
From agriculture’s point of view, the bill needs to include border security, a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented people who haven’t broken the law, and a revised guest worker program. Agriculture has complained the current guest worker program, known as H2A, is cumbersome and expensive. Growers can apply to import guest workers after a showing the domestic labor force is inadequate.
“It doesn’t work,” Gasperini said, adding that H2A workers make up about 5 percent of the overall ag work force. “It is near capacity. Some have used it and use has grown due to labor shortages. It is difficult to predict if the workers will arrive on time. It is very expensive because of the up front costs.”
Growers have to pay for travel, room and board. Gasperini said the higher required hourly pay rate of nearly $11 per hour — minimum wage is $9.04 — is not the problem. Rather, it’s application and visa costs that can be as much as $1,500 per worker.
Along with those elements, a bill likely would need to have stiff employer sanctions for hiring illegal workers , charge a fee to those seeking legal status along with payment of any back taxes.
Stolz said fees are something immigration advocates would have to accept as long as amnesty is included that allows otherwise law-abiding immigrants to stay, maintain family unity and contribute to society.
“There is a moral issue there. That is very important to us going forward,” Stolz said.
• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or firstname.lastname@example.org.