Tuesday Talks with Dr. Patterson

March 3, 2015

Still Waiting on Immigration Reform

Many watched last week as the U.S. House of Representatives grappled with passing a budget bill for the Department of Homeland Security before funding for the current fiscal year was to expire.  The shutdown of this agency was narrowly averted by a couple of hours.  Some House Republicans were interested in inserting language in the budget bill that would nullify President Obama’s executive order on immigration issued in November.  Facing concern that the Senate would not support a budget bill with such language, the House settled for a bill on Friday providing a one week budget extension.  So, when the House and Senate reconvene this week, they will attempt to complete a budget bill for the remainder of the fiscal year.  Meanwhile, many in the agricultural sector continue to wait for Congress to provide needed immigration reform during this new session.  And, they have been waiting for over 15 years.

 It is estimated that among the approximate 2.4 million agricultural workers in the United States, approximately one-half are undocumented immigrants.  Agricultural employers argue that recruiting citizens or documented workers to the sector is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  This sizeable number of undocumented workers in agriculture has persisted since the mid-1990s, which was not long after the last reform to U.S. immigration laws.  That legislation, passed in 1986, provided the current guest agricultural worker visa program known as H-2A.  Agricultural employers find the H-2A program to be cumbersome and ineffective in providing guest agricultural workers.  Today, many agricultural producers continue to face labor shortages and are employing undocumented workers.

 Hope for immigration reform, including an improved guest worker program and amnesty for current undocumented workers, rose early during the last session of Congress.  In June 2013, the Senate passed the bipartisan-sponsored Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744).  With the House neither acting on this bill nor proposing its own, the Senate bill expired at the end of the session on January 3, 2015.

 Many of the undocumented immigrant workers in the United States have families or entered the United States as children.  President Obama’s executive order issued on November 20, 2014 would have offered protection from deportation for these workers.  The Department of Homeland Security was responsible for executing the order, which is why the House attempted to insert language in its budget bill to block the order.  The order was scheduled to go into effect on February 18.  However, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen issued an order on February 16 barring the Department of Homeland Security from accepting applications for work permits for these undocumented immigrants.  His order followed from a suit filed by 26 states against the Obama administration.  The suit was led by Texas and was joined by Alabama and 24 other states.

 Some view President Obama’s executive order as an attempt to keep immigrant families together by removing the threat of a working parent with U.S. citizen children or a young adult brought to the United States as a child being deported.  Some also felt that this was a way of providing needed labor in agriculture, construction, and the restaurant and hotel industry.  However, some feel that it could actually reduce available labor supplies in agriculture.  If allowed to be executed, workers obtaining work permits would not face the possibility of deportation.  Some workers employed in seasonal jobs in agriculture may seek employment in other sectors not facing the seasonality seen in agriculture.  Indeed, some even predicted further declines in available labor in agriculture under the executive order.  Furthermore, the Department of Homeland Security has shifted its enforcement efforts from the interior of the United States to the border.  This will make it more difficult for other undocumented workers to enter the United States, further limiting labor supplies.

 The provisions under the executive order known as the Deferred Actions for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) presented other challenges in its execution.  For workers to file for work permits, they had to prove they had lived in the United States continuously since January 1, 2010.  Some workers may seek payroll records from their employers to prove their continuity in residency.  However, in making the request for these records, so they can apply for a program that will prevent deportation, they may have to explain that the documents they used to obtain employment were fraudulent.  Consultants to agribusiness firms are recommending a previously used government policy stance–don’t ask.  For the time being, Judge Hanen’s court order bars the execution of the order, so those awkward conversations between employers and their employees will not need to take place.

 The confusion over administering DAPA, the political struggle to develop a budget bill for the Federal Agency intended to protect the border and ensure safe, legal immigration to the United States, and the prospects of continued labor shortages in some sectors, including agriculture, point to the need for new legislation providing immigration reform.  For now, businesses and workers can do nothing else by wait on Congress.


 Dr. Paul Patterson is Associate Dean for Instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.