It’s the best they can do.
That was the message coming from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray on Thursday in Yakima as she heard the positive and negative feedback from growers, workers, students and business people on the bipartisan immigration reform proposal currently in the Senate.
“I have been through this debate before and not gotten it through,” said Murray, a Democrat who was first elected in 1992. “So I know how tough this is.”
Murray made the comments during a roundtable discussion at the Washington State Fruit Commission office in Terrace Heights just a day after up to several thousand people marched through Yakima calling on Congress to take action. Murray said the bill, which includes new restrictions on petitioning visas for certain family members, isn’t entirely what she would have proposed, but that the time is right for making progress.
“I would like it to be better in specific ways,” Murray said in an interview afterward. “But the bill is at the best place it can be to move forward in the Senate.”
As House Republicans ready to address the issue piece by piece — as opposed to one comprehensive bill such as the Senate version — Murray said such an approach could derail reform efforts altogether.
“That has not worked in the past; it will not work this time,” she said.
Growers at the roundtable, such as Sean Gilbert, general manager of Gilbert Orchards, said the legislation’s proposed visa program for low-skilled foreign workers would significantly reduce the red tape faced by employers currently participating in guest-worker programs. A new federal bureau would be in charge of setting the cap for how many visas are granted annually depending on worker shortages and the state of the national labor market.
“It won’t be perfect, but it’s going to be so much better than what we have right now,” Gilbert said.
Bruce Allen, president of the agricultural packing and shipping company Columbia Reach Pack, said the current H2A guest-worker program requires growers to estimate their labor need, but offers no simple remedy for adjusting the application if the crop is bigger or smaller than expected.
“They would have just had to reapply,” Allen said.
Mike Broadhead, president of Central Valley Bank, said the Senate proposal would bring much-needed security to the agriculture industry, which makes up about 42 percent of the bank’s portfolio. He said he also believes workers deserve a path to citizenship, which the proposal would provide to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country over a 13-year period.
“All we’re after is a long-term solution,” Broadhead said.
The bill does some things to address family reunification issues, which were brought up by Yakima resident Elizabeth Lara, who is undocumented and whose father was deported to Mexico two years ago.
“Like with my father, there are thousands of families being separated every day,” Lara said.
The 20-year-old former Yakima Valley Community College student had to drop out because she couldn’t afford to pay for her studies and is ineligible for federal or state financial aid. Lara, a field worker, was recently given temporary residency under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and has saved enough to enroll at Heritage University in the fall.
If the bill were enacted in its current form, Lara could petition for her father to obtain residency if she successfully achieves lawful permanent resident status through the DREAM Act provision of the bill, a spokesman for Murray said.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings’ office issued a statement that shed more light on his thinking as Congress considers the issue.
“We are a nation of laws, but it isn’t realistic to round everyone up and deport them. If anybody desires to come into this country illegally, they should go to the end of the line,” Hastings said. “Individuals who broke the law should not be allowed to go ahead of those abiding by the law and going through the proper legalization process.”
The spokesman said Hastings will not take a position on the entire Senate bill before it is considered, amended and passed on to the House.
At the roundtable, another local field worker and mother of four, Erendira Maya, said she has applied for a “U visa,” typically granted to victims of serious crimes, but still is unable to travel between countries while she waits for approval. Meanwhile, Maya said she is unable to visit her father, who is dying of cancer in Mexico, as a result.
To go back would mean moving back with her children, all of them U.S. citizens.
“I couldn’t remove them from the only country they know,” Maya said.
Murray told the group she expects the legislation to come before the full Senate in June. She said the roundtable was helpful for her, especially hearing from employers who believe the guest-worker reforms are a vast improvement on the current system.
Mike Gempler, the executive director of the Washington Grower’s League and moderator of Thursday’s event, said he believes momentum is on proponents’ side, but that could fade if legislation stalls in Congress.
“This time next year if nothing has happened, I think a lot of us would be paying a steep price,” Gempler said.