ONE of President-elect Donald Trump's pillar campaign promises was that he would build a wall and deport millions of undocumented immigrants. In the days following his election, he had already taken a more programmatic approach to the nation's immigration woes.
When meeting with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), Trump said they agreed that immigration is an area where they can work together quickly. Ryan confirmed that securing the border between the U.S. and Mexico will be the first priority.
"We are not planning on erecting a deportation force," Ryan said. "Donald Trump is not planning on that. That's not what we're focused on. We're focused on securing the border. We think that's first and foremost before we get into any other immigration issue. We've got to know who's coming and going in the country."
In an interview on "60 Minutes" following the election, Trump estimated that 2 million people are here illegally who are "criminals and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers," and he is looking to either deport them or incarcerate them. "We're getting them out of our country; they're here illegally," Trump said.
Jeff Burton, president of Burton Strategy Group and former political strategist for the House, said Trump's threat on a deportation force mostly will be "much ado about nothing." Trump will not be able to deport 10-11 million people, Burton explained, and President Barack Obama has already deported 2.5 million immigrants over the last few years.
He said with Republicans controlling the House, Senate and White House, their first priority will be securing the border and deporting criminals. After that, they'll deal with guest worker and visa issues.
Once the border is secure, Trump indicated that he is going to make a determination on the "terrific people" who are already living and working in the U.S.
For the dairy industry, Burton said there's "nothing, from a practical and policy standpoint, (that dairy producers) need to be worrying about right now."
Talking points agreed upon by Trump's Agricultural Advisory Committee explained, "Trump recognizes the unique labor challenges facing the American farm community and will include farmers and ranchers in the process of determining the best possible immigration policies."
The announcement that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) will be Trump's attorney general could create another strong hardliner for strict immigration policies. Sessions has built his reputation in the Senate by waging all-out assaults on the last two efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.
Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said an enforcement-only policy poses certain concerns for the agriculture industry. The Farm Bureau has conducted studies that found that an enforcement-only approach would cause agricultural production to fall and food prices to rise.
"Farm Bureau has been working to educate members and the new administration during the campaign that an enforcement approach needs to understand the economic needs of agriculture and not be done on the backs of farmers," Boswell said.
"Comprehensive" immigration policy became a bit of a bad word on Capitol Hill when Republicans rejected such an approach approved by the Senate several years ago. Boswell said the House is more likely to take a "piece-by-piece" approach, and as long as it recognizes the guest worker future flow problem, the Farm Bureau will be supportive of whatever vehicle allows that to move forward.
Boswell feels strongly that a middle ground that addresses both short-term and long-term labor needs and provides stability for U.S. farmers is possible, as long as the industry can agree on a unified message.
Jon Baselice, director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he sees Trump as a "deal maker." If he's going to get anything done, he's going to have to make some deals.
"If the ask is big, the give is big," Baselice said. There may be opportunities to get targeted victories. "Ag has its place in the mix here," he said.
Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, pointed out that many immigration efforts have failed, so now is the time for new ideas.
Cato is laying the groundwork by helping generate information on how a proposal for a state-sponsored visa program might work. The concept is backed by the American Dairy Council, and although no one on Capitol Hill has taken it up yet, many are waiting on the sidelines.
Immigrants would be eligible to renew their status — which expires after three years — only if they comply with the rules, work only in the state sponsoring them and have the state re-sponsor them for the visa. Nowrasteh explained that the current system gives government agencies no reason to enforce the law, so increasing the allowable number of visas in a state provides a positive incentive to follow the rules.
Since there is no "one-size-fits-all" answer, this State Visa Program bill would give states the discretion they need to run an immigration program that will work beneficially for their state and their citizens.
This program may be the new idea the agriculture industry has been waiting for — one that makes it possible to ultimately provide more than 1.6 million visas over the course of four years for law-abiding immigrant workers.