Trouble at Home 

Idaho agribusiness demands immigration reform... now

The fight over immigration reform, already a bare-knuckled brawl, is entering its latest round in the nation's capital after the holiday recess. But this time, the tussle won't be between the U.S. House of Representatives and President Barack Obama, as it was during the debt ceiling debate. Rather, it will be a face-off between Republican House leaders and their rank-and-file--including Idaho Republican U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, who recently used strong language to call for delaying consideration of the issue in the House until mid-2015.

"I think it should cost him his speakership" if House Speaker John Boehner, also a Republican, introduces an immigration overhaul to the floor, Labrador said in a Feb. 4 interview with political blog Roll Call.

But pressure to enact immigration reform is mounting. Many of the issues at play are close to the Republican Party's heart--border security and the rule of law, among them--and Idaho agriculturalists are urging their congressmen to unite in favor of reform they say will keep the wheels of Idaho's farming, ranching and dairy interests rolling smoothly. The latter are growing impatient.

"We've been waiting since 2008. It's time to get [immigration reform] in front of the House and vote on it," Milk Producers of Idaho President Brent Olmstead told Boise Weekly.

According to Olmstead and other agriculture industry representatives, a reform package that gets a thumbs-up from Idaho agribusinesses would include paperless workplace identification for migrant workers, and abandoning the practice of conscripting local police in immigration enforcement efforts. They'd like lawmakers to better understand that not all guest workers are interested in becoming United States citizens, and, most important, any bill should give Idaho industries access to a plentiful labor pool.

"We would like to see quotas that provide a quantity of workforce that meets the demand," Olmstead said. "If we can set up a guest worker program, I think that is fair overall and will satisfy demand for employers."

The umbrella term "immigration reform," however, can be an oversimplification, particularly in light of the needs of the migrant laborers and the industries that employ them. According to Terry Jones, owner at Rim Fire Ranch, about 40 percent of the migrant laborers he has encountered eventually applied for U.S. citizenship. Preferable, at least in the short term, would be an expanded guest worker program aided by technological identification methods like barcoded ID cards.

The need for reform, Idaho agriculturalists said, is immediate--and the stakes are high: "If America wants a safe, quality and abundant supply of food, immigrant reform is priority No. 1," Jones said.

Jones, Olmstead and Dennis Tanikuni, assistant director of government affairs at Idaho Farm Bureau, agreed that the House immigration reform principles are a signal that Congress may be willing to lead this legislative session to meaningful policy changes. Some of the measures which resonated with them included sections on entry-exit visa tracking systems, employment verification and workplace enforcement, as well as reforms to the legal immigration system--all of which nod to security hawks while giving laborers stable legal access to jobs in agriculture. Less vital are policies that would swell the ranks of new Americans.

"I don't know whether an ideal piece of legislation would necessarily contain a path to citizenship," said Tanikuni.

Despite agribusiness' unity on the subject, the road to reform in Congress is likely to be rocky. Since releasing their immigration principles Jan. 31, House Republicans have already begun to waffle on whether they'll see immigration bills on the floor in 2014. Reps. Eric Cantor, R-VA, and Paul Ryan, R-WI, have already joined Labrador in blaming a lack of leadership on the part of President Obama for turbulence in the House on the reform issue.

"The problem that we have right now is that Republicans and the American public don't trust this president to actually enforce the law," Labrador said.

Nevertheless, Labrador and other House members' qualms with the president have become a familiar refrain, even among leaders who touted the party's reform principles as recently as the first week of February.

"The American people, including many of my members, don't trust that the reforms that we're talking about will be implemented as it was intended," Boehner said during a Feb. 6 press conference.

Even if Boehner can sell immigration reform to his caucus, he'll have to work with Republican leaders in the Senate who are already looking ahead to midterm elections this November. Already, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, has indicated that reaching an agreement between the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House would be unlikely in 2014.

"I think we have sort of an irresolvable conflict here. The Senate insists on comprehensive [legislation]. The House says it won't go to conference with the Senate on comprehensive and wants to look at it step-by-step," McConnell told reporters Feb. 4.

Labrador has said that a better time to address the issue might be the summer of 2015--after the November elections, which may shift the party balance in the Senate, but before the presidential election. He may have a harder time raising campaign funds for saying so, as total agribusiness contributions have been the largest to his campaign, totaling $22,800, according to watchdog website OpenSecrets.org.

"I know that for the dairy industry, support for immigration reform is going to be the No. 1 issue as people ask us for contributions for campaigns," Olmstead said. If other agricultural industries follow suit, that could spell significant reductions in campaign funds for Idaho delegates who oppose reform in 2014.

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