There's a feel of change in the wind and a growing spark of anticipation.
"This is a really exciting time for immigration reform," Erich Straub, veteran immigration attorney, said during a Jan. 28 webinar presented by Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. "I, like many of you, have waited a long time to see some of these positive changes occurring."
The World Class webinar, "Immigration Reform for Dairy: Is It Finally Here?" was the first in a two-part series featuring the veteran immigration attorney.
This time around, Straub believes there is good reason for optimism. "Many people are skeptical because, unfortunately, we've been down this road many times with disappointing results, but this time is different," he said.
A big reason for his optimism is the work being done by eight U.S. senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, working together on the immigration issue.
On Jan. 28, they announced a framework for immigration reform. "This contains some really, really exciting stuff for agriculture, and it actually has dairy specifically mentioned," Straub said.
The announcement by the "Gang of Eight" gives agriculture and, in particular, dairy producers a lot of reasons to be pleased, Straub said.
It said individuals who have been working without legal status in the U.S. ag industry have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain a diverse food supply, while earning subsistence wages.
"Other than the 'subsistence wages' part, I think this is a very positive statement," Straub commented.
The announcement continued that, due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, ag workers who commit to the long-term stability of our nation's agricultural industries will be treated differently from the rest of the undocumented population.
These individuals, it continued, will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under a new aid worker program.
Straub noted the statement spoke of "long-term commitment" being required, meaning workers will have to prove themselves in order to take advantage of the visa.
"We're definitely going to have a pathway to citizenship," he added. "This is a positive development. It certainly gives workers something to work for long term, as well as more stability for you. It means your best employees will stick around."
The 'Gang of Eight' announced they want to create a program that meets the needs of American agriculture, including dairy, to find workers where American workers are not available to fill open positions.
"You guys can jump up and hoot and holler now because I think dairy was the only specialty industry that got specific mention today," Strauss underlined. "It is clear to me that they are very aware of how unjust the H2A program was."
Straub gave 10 reasons, Letterman-style in order of rising importance, that point to a game change underway.
10. Social Security: Immigrants are critical to support America's aging population and entitlements such as Social Security, both to formulate the tax base and for their more youthful work energy.
9. Food Security: There is an emerging political view, reinforced by studies done by the Pentagon, that it is vital for America to have a stable, in-country food supply. "There is growing recognition that food security and our agricultural base is critical, and we need to change the immigration system to maintain that," Straub pointed out.
8. High Tech Economy: America is a decades-long transition into a high tech economy, Straub said, but, unfortunately, its educational system does not foster the innovation necessary to keep the nation on top. In addition, the U.S. visa system is considered a barrier to high-tech level immigrants.
7. "DREAMers": These are kids who were born abroad, but are essentially American in every aspect, except citizenship, Straub said. They are largely unable to access higher education and jobs, and they have become a huge player in the political landscape, Straub noted.
6. The Border: Although a perennial issue, the debate is changing because the number of undocumented immigrants coming over the border seems to be stabilizing at a lower level than in previous years. It is likely the result of the poorer U.S. economy over the past few years, Straub noted, and could reverse itself.
5. The Cost of Deportation: A recent study showed America is spending more money on Department of Homeland Security immigration issues than all other law enforcement departments combined. "That is staggering, really," Straub said. "We are deporting upwards of half a million people a year and the costs are just colossal."
4. The Polls: In the wake of the election, polls show a significant majority of Americans believe the 11 million undocumented people already here should be given a pathway to citizenship. "This is a tremendous change from the past and an important development," Straub said.
3. K-Street: This is where lobbyists in Washington, D.C. maintain headquarters. K-Street tends to indicate where the emphasis is going to be, Straub noted. Significant amounts of money are being spent and people are being hired to lobby for the coming immigration reform legislation. "This is a very new, very significant development and it has just been happening in the past few months," he noted.
2. Republican leadership: Straub considers this as the most significant development. In many people's opinion, the Republican Party was the biggest obstacle to immigration reform, he explained, but the Latino vote going overwhelmingly to the Democrats in November has caused a shift.
"We are seeing some of the major players come out very strongly for comprehensive immigration reform," Straub said, pointing to John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio. "This is a dramatic change."
1. Latino Vote: The November 11 election has dramatically changed the political landscape of this country for decades to come, Straub said, adding "it is the primary reason why we are seeing a serious, serious movement toward reform."
In whatever legislation comes, the top concerns for dairy are how its current workforce and its future workers will be handled.
Dairy wants to retain its current, well-trained workforce, Straub explained. They are undocumented, but many have been working on dairy farms for 10-15 years. "We need some sort of temporary status, a way to legalize relatively quickly to take the pressure off of producers, as well as these employees," he said.
The dairy workers also need a pathway to permanent residency. "I'm happy to say that today's announcement by the Senate's 'Gang of Eight' shows them clearly on the side of permanent residence for these workers," Straub said. "That is a huge change."
Although citizenship for undocumented workers has been a "real testy issue" in the past, the parties are rethinking their approaches.
"The Republican Party realizes it should put more of its resources into solving this problem and convincing Latinos they should be Republicans, rather than just trying to block this population from legalizing," he commented.
In terms of future workers, he said, a temporary visa will be needed, but not seasonal, as in the past.
It needs to be flexible to meet the needs of all areas of agriculture, as well as cost-effective, so producers can get the workers they need quickly and efficiently. "This cannot be 'one size fits all' legislation," Straub stressed.
It is clear the 'Gang of Eight' sides with temporary visas for future workers that ultimately give a path to citizenship, Straub said. "I think that is an extremely positive development," he added, because it would provide the ability to retain good dairy workers.
Any guest worker program needs to be portable, rather than something that ties the visa to a particular employer.
"The farm worker advocacy community does not want to see situations where there are labor violations and workers are tied to a bad apple," Straub pointed out. "This is a very important issue and much discussed, and I would expect it to be a component of any bill."
Besides strong worker protection, the framework would also permit workers who have succeeded in the workplace and contributed to their communities over many years to earn a green card.
Straub cautioned that this is not the time for undocumented workers to be heading home for a visit. "I want to send a clear message to workers to hold tight," he said. "Now is not the time to visit the home country."
Politically, the players in the Senate are Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). Feinstein, who is drafting the bill that will be introduced in the Senate, has long championed the issue and been very positive toward agriculture, Straub noted.
In the House, watch Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Paul Ryan (R-WI). It's not clear who will take the Republican lead in the House, Straub said, but with Rubio and Ryan both harboring presidential ambitions, it could work into a positive case of one-upsmanship.
The organizations to keep an eye on are the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR), Farm Bureau and Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC).
On Feb. 25, Straub will address I-9 inspections, including how to prepare for one, how to handle an agent, and I-9 process improvements to protect the business. Registration is required by Feb. 18. For more information, go to www.pdpw.org or call 800-947-7379.