Local agriculture representatives and the faith community responded favorably Monday to a proposed sweeping reform of national immigration policy, one that offers a path to citizenship for those without documents, an agricultural guest worker program, employer sanctions and stronger borders.
But critics quickly raised issue with the plan crafted by eight prominent U.S. senators, evidence of the struggle that awaits attempts at the first significant overhaul of immigration laws in more than two decades.
Opponents questioned what they called another round of amnesty for an estimated 11 million people, which they contend will encourage additional illegal immigration and no guarantees that border security will be improved.
There is agreement, however, that the pace of debate on immigration reform has quickened in the aftermath of the 2012 election, during which a large majority of Hispanic voters favored President Barack Obama’s re-election.
“It is always in the details where disagreement can arise. There is a lot of momentum for action,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, a group that works on labor issues. “That is clear. That is powerful. The political momentum is such that the odds of something passing are pretty high.”
The fact that this is a bipartisan effort — fashioned by four Republican and four Democratic senators — shows how far work on the issue has come in a short time, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima. Both the growers league and the council, which represents the Northwest fruit industry on regulatory and trade issues, are members of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, an organization focused on agricultural labor issues.
“This is the first real sign of bipartisan cooperation on this issue for quite awhile,” Schlect said. “There is an awful lot of territory to be covered between the proposal and statutory language. But this is good news. It looks like they do understand that ag labor has special needs and we will see what that means.”
Estimates are that 70 percent of farm workers in the state lack legal documents.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, issued a statement Monday saying the immigration system is broken and he looks forward to working on details of a reform plan that strengthens the border and creates a workable guest worker program for agriculture.
“Enacting long overdue changes to our immigration system is necessary to preserve our security, economy, and way of life,” the statement said.
Among sponsors of the Senate plan are Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., considered a rising star in the Republican Party and a potential presidential candidate.
Bishop Joseph Tyson of the Catholic Diocese of Yakima also applauded the four-point program released Monday. Tyson said the diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have long urged immigration reform to bring millions of people out of the shadows and to protect family unity.
“We have many families that are separated in Yakima and across Central Washington. That is where we have pointed consistently,” Tyson said. “We are very committed to family unification, to help children be with their moms and dads who would be able to raise them. The whole issue of family unification is a central piece we are looking to.”
At the heart of the plan is a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but not before better security of the borders and improved tracking of those on visas. Potential citizens would have to learn English, pay back taxes and fines, and undergo a background check before receiving temporary legal status and green cards. Obtaining that status, however, would come after the borders are secure. Applicants in this group also would have to get in line behind those seeking green cards legally.
The plan also requires employment verification that would hold employers accountable for hiring undocumented workers.
Agricultural workers would follow a shorter path to legal residency. The plan also creates what is called a workable program to meet the needs of agriculture. Gempler said the plan needs to be more flexible than the current H2A program under which employers can recruit foreign workers upon showing the domestic labor force is inadequate.
Bob West of Yakima, who heads the Grassroots of Yakima Valley, a group that favors smaller government, gun rights, lower taxes and hardened borders, said the plan appears to him to be just a rehash of past amnesty legislation that gives preference to people who broke the law while penalizing those following a legal immigration route.
He said the 1986 Immigration Reform Act under the Reagan administration also proposed strict border security.
“Now we are coming back with another one while our borders are still not secure. What are the chances of getting secure borders if it didn’t happen under a conservative administration?” he asked.
Sandra Belzer-Brendale, state chairwoman for the conservative Republican Liberty Caucus, also said she is concerned that border security will be left in the dust in a rush to provide legal status to the undocumented.