Inside Washington: How Trump really will tackle immigration

Dairy industry talks about realities of what may work in the path ahead on getting a viable solution for agriculture's workforce.

President-elect Donald Trump has already softened his stance on immigration, giving hope to agricultural producers looking for a viable workforce.

Immigration was one of the issues that clearly galvanized many of Trump's supporters, and his plans for the first 100 days in office include repealing ObamaCare, tax reform and immigration reform. However, his campaign tone has already softened on immigration, making those in agriculture hopeful about changes that can better meet the unique needs of the industry.

Immigrants play a key to the future economic success of the dairy industry. These workers affect not only the dairy industry but also surrounding industries such as feed companies, equipment manufacturing companies and banks. The current immigration system, which does not provide less-skilled foreigners with a legal way to enter the U.S. and work a year-round job, is not suitable for today’s thriving American economy, explained the American Dairy Coalition (ADC), which represents 30,000 dairy farmers.

Laurie Fisher, president of the ADC, said the number-one concern of dairy producers is where they’re going to find their labor force to milk the cows.

Both Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) agreed that their first area of focus will be on securing the border, not deportation or building a wall along the border with Mexico, as Trump so commonly said during his campaign.

Jeff Burton, president of Burton Strategy Group and former political strategist for the House Republican leadership, said Trump's threat on deportation force mostly will be “much ado about nothing.” Trump’s not going to 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.

Burton said with Republicans controlling the House, Senate and the White House, their first priority will be securing the border and deporting criminals. After that, they’ll deal with guest worker and visa issues.

He said there’s “nothing, from a practical and policy standpoint, (that those in the dairy industry) need to be worrying about right now.”

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.

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.”

Talking points agreed upon by Trump’s Agricultural Advisory Committee noted that “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.”

Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, pointed out that many immigration efforts have failed, so it is time for new ideas. Cato is laying the groundwork by helping generate some information on how a proposal for a state-sponsored visa program might work. The concept is backed by ADC, and although no one on Capitol Hill has taken it up yet, many are waiting on the sidelines.

Nowrasteh explained how Congress could create a new nonimmigrant visa category — alongside the current visa programs — to allow states to sponsor foreign workers, investors, and entrepreneurs to live and work in their states. States would be able to use visas to sponsor immigrants using any criteria that suited their states — highly or less-skilled workers, investors or entrepreneurs — so long as they met the basic federal health and criminal requirements for admission.

Immigrants are 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.

He explained that the current system gives no reason for government agencies to enforce the law. By increasing the allowable number of visas in a state, it provides a positive incentive to follow the rules.

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