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Straight Talk On Immigration

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 27, 2006

First we welcomed the new United Fresh Produce Association here. Then we discussed the challenges related to conducting government relations for an association that is both vertically integrated and horizontally diverse here.

We have dealt with immigration reform before, both here and here, but the situation is now coming to a head. We would be remiss if we didn’t discuss today’s legislative situation with regard to immigration, which was the real focus of United’s Washington Public Policy Conference.

The Pundit’s reading of the political tea leaves, though, is that United and others in its coalition are very possibly going to lose and that there will be either no law or none with a guest worker program included.

Most of this is unavoidable. Here is Prevor’s Law on the matter: To the extent an issue becomes a matter of general public interest and concern, the ability of special interests to influence the legislative outcome on that issue is constrained.

Put another way, as long as something is “inside baseball” — meaning the produce industry cares about it but nobody else does — the industry can usually carry the day. Even if it is produce versus some other trade group, it is a situation where we can have a lot of influence.

But immigration reform is on the front page of every newspaper. It strikes at the very essence of our nationhood, the kind of country we wish to have, our national security.

In this kind of context, regardless of the strength of our arguments or the quality of our lobbying effort, it is very hard to have a big impact on the outcome of the final vote. If the majority of the population feels that what is at stake is the security of the nation or the type of country we are going to be, the impact on the produce industry unfortunately isn’t likely to play a big factor in the debate.

This particular issue is especially difficult because normal compromises won’t likely be reached because the government has no credibility on this matter. Typically you would have people on one side in favor of very limited immigration, and on the other side you would have those who say economic growth requires workers.

The perfect compromise would normally be a guest worker program. One side achieves its goals of keeping the citizenry as is; the other achieves its goal of getting workers. But it doesn’t work in this situation. Why?

Pick any affluent community in America and you can find thousands of housekeepers, nannies, etc., who are all illegal. Not one of them arrived in the country illegally. All came on a legal visa and didn’t leave when they were supposed to.

The US government does nothing about this flaunting of the law. As much as anything else, it is this fact that makes many unwilling to vote for a guest-worker program, since they have no reason to believe that these guest workers won’t overstay their visas and no reason to think that the government will do anything about it when they do.

If we really want to pass a guest-worker program, I think we need to add two elements to the current proposals:

  1. We have to break this credibility gap. The only way to do this would be to assess a fee per guest worker to be used to set up a special force within the Department of Homeland Security, whose only two purposes are A) To maintain a registry of exactly where all these guest workers are living at any time, and B) To act immediately if someone fails to exit the country on schedule. If a guest worker is scheduled to leave on September 18th and doesn’t show up at a border checkpoint; then at 12:01 AM on the 19th, there needs to be an APB out looking for that person.
  2. We have to make any guest-worker program temporary. There are many problems with guest-worker programs, and we’ve pointed them out here. It is not clear that everyone understands how extraordinary the produce industry request really is. After all, merely increasing the amount of legal immigration, for example, would not satisfy the produce industry. Why? Because legal immigrants could work in any chosen field and would, likely, find other opportunities than harvesting produce. What we are asking for is a class of immigrant whose opportunities are constricted so they won’t go open a produce retail operation or work in a produce wholesaling operation, much less be a lawyer, doctor or engineer. Instead, the only thing that these people are to be allowed to do is harvest produce.

    A guest-worker program such as this is so alien to the American way and so offensive to the way many people think about America and the opportunities it offers that it seems unlikely to last indefinitely. The industry should take the bull by the horns and propose a guest-worker program as a temporary measure while we invest in mechanized harvesting. Whatever number we want to start with, we should agree now to a 2.5% phase out in the number of guest workers each year. In other words, the industry should make a promise to America that we will reorganize our domestic agriculture over the next 40 years so that we will no longer require guest workers.

These two proposals might break the logjam caused by the lack of governmental credibility on immigration issues. Maybe, maybe, this could pass.

Of course, there are reasons why these things haven’t been proposed. Growers don’t particularly want to pay a tax to fund a police function, and they are uncertain if they can ever operate without illegal immigrants or guest workers.

But the problem is right now. We are getting many reports that the Border Control’s current “catch and release” program is significantly reducing the current availability of farm labor, so crops are not being harvested as a result but left in the fields.

From an industry perspective, fighting for a guest-worker program without these two provisions may be a case of allowing the best to stand in the way of the good.

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