WITH primary season coming to an end and public interest in addressing a broken immigration system growing, the agriculture secretary is making the case that immigration reform would be good politics for both parties.
"There's no question that the time has come," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a media call he hosted on the need for Congress to pass immigration reform. He noted that there are a limited number of days left in this congressional session, so if it's going to get done, it needs to get done now.
"We know House leadership supports this, and certainly, I'm confident that if bills were put on the board, there would be sufficient votes. It's good policy, and honestly, it's good politics," Vilsack said.
Since the last election, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) has voiced the need for House Republicans to take up immigration reform proposals and has been increasing the call in recent weeks.
The Senate passed comprehensive reform last summer, but House leaders continue to claim that they want to take a more piecemeal approach, especially with concerns that President Barack Obama isn't implementing the laws on the books now when it comes to border security.
Phil Glaize, who runs a midsized apple farm in Virginia that needs 115 seasonal employees during harvest time but often falls short in meeting those needs, said he talks to his congressman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), about the issue four to five times a year.
Glaize said Goodlatte, who's also chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which would be in charge of undertaking any immigration legislation, has "moved a little bit" in his thoughts on reform, but Glaize said the two are "at odds as to the most appropriate way to proceed with immigration reform."
Vilsack said House Republicans' desire to pass a series of steps rather than a comprehensive bill is a "lame explanation" since no individual piece has come to the floor for a vote.
"Pass something so at least you could create a vehicle in which there could be a compromise reached similar to what was done, ultimately, with the farm bill," Vilsack said. "When you essentially don't pass anything, you have no vehicle, no avenue for resolving differences, and things get stuck, and the unfortunate and tragic consequence of that is Phil Glaize and his operation can't do what he wants to do and what he ought to be able to do and what he should do for his operation and for American agriculture and for the economy."
For agriculture, the impact is real. Vilsack said comprehensive immigration reform would provide a competitive playing field where everybody plays by the same rules, and that would deliver stability and certainty to allow the best operators to prosper.
On April 22, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson also met with a small but diverse group of business, agricultural, faith and law enforcement leaders.
Five individuals represented agriculture, including Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Ag Coalition for Immigration Reform, and Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation. Both said the primary focus of the meeting was on the need for legislation and what the secretary can do to support the process moving forward.
Boswell said she remains hopeful that there will be a window for immigration reform this summer. She said her group continues to work with the House, including Goodlatte, "on the agriculture piece but also has been working extensively in the countryside to educate our neighbors and the members of the need for immigration reform this year."
Regelbrugge added, "Though the obstacles are formidable and the time short, there is a decent chance that the House will attempt to move some immigration measures at some point between now and the August recess."
He said everyone in agriculture needs to pull out all the stops to encourage House Republicans to take wise and timely action.
"If the current window is missed, it is doubtful that we will see meaningful relief before the next presidential election," Regelbrugge warned, and the result would be a "prolonged and disastrous labor drought."