In the past few weeks, President Obama’s executive actions on immigration reform have been under attack in Congress and in the courts. You may recall that during the appropriations process late last year, a decision was made to fund DHS until only February in order to give the new Congress an opportunity to undo President Obama’s administrative actions on immigration. Wasting no time in acting, this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that attempts to block the President from implementing the new executive actions on immigration reform and to end the existing DACA program for young people. The parts of the Homeland Security bill relating to administrative relief were added to the bill as amendments. Members of the House of Representatives voted on the amendments and the underlying bill mainly along party lines. However, several pro-immigration reform Republicans voted against the amendments and final passage of the bill and several Democrats voted in support of the amendments and final passage. The amendment to terminate the DACA program passed by only a slim margin, with 26 Republicans voting against it, mostly from districts with high immigrant populations. The final appropriations bill passed by a vote of 236-191. Farmworker Justice joined other organizations in condemning the anti-immigrant amendments.
The DHS funding bill is not expected to become law, however, as it is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. Even if it were to pass the Senate, President Obama is likely to veto the bill. This poses a problem for Congress because if they don’t pass a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security by February 27th, then the agency will be “shut down” (last time there was a government shut down the majority of DHS employees worked without pay until Congress passed an appropriations bill awarding them back pay). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he will give Senators the opportunity to vote on the House version of the bill. Some Republican Senators have stressed the importance of funding the security agency over playing politics on immigration.
On the litigation front, a federal judge heard oral arguments on Thursday in the lawsuit in which 25 states are suing the President over his executive actions on immigration. After the hearing in the Southern District of Texas, Judge Andrew Hanen will decide whether or not to order the government to refrain from implementing the deferred action programs until after the case is fully adjudicated. It’s also possible that the judge could prohibit the implementation of the deferred action programs only in those states that are suing the federal government, allowing the programs to proceed in the other states. About a dozen states led by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson have filed a brief in the case defending the executive actions.
In one victory for President Obama’s immigration executive actions, on December 23rd, a federal judge dismissed Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s lawsuit against the Federal Government challenging the Administration’s deferred action program. Judge Beryl Howell held that Arpaio does not legally have the right to bring the lawsuit. She found that he was unable to show that he would suffer a particular harm and therefore his claim is better suited for the political process to work out. In other words, he is no different from any other citizen who doesn’t like a government policy. Arpaio’s argument that the policies would affect him relied on the effect that undocumented immigrants’ criminal activities would have on him as a sheriff (arguing that the program incentivized more undocumented criminals to enter the country). Judge Howell said that the opposite is true: the Administration’s focus on deporting serious criminals could actually address his concerns rather than exacerbating them as Arpaio claimed. Judge Howell’s opinion also stated that the deferred action programs are an exercise of valid prosecutorial discretion consistent with Congressional policy.
In response to President Obama’s deferred action programs, some growers and their associations have begun to cry wolf about labor shortages again. A Florida article claiming that there is a labor shortage in agriculture says that during an economic recovery, workers leave agriculture for “less intensive jobs that produce more pay and stability – like hospitality and construction.” The article goes on to say that “industry experts fear the trend will broaden if many illegals are allowed to stay in the United States without fear of being deported,” implying that the fear of deportation keeps them working in agriculture. Check out Daniel Costa’s blog on the Economic Policy Institute’s website which responds to the Director of Government Affairs for the Western Growers’ Association, Ken Barbic’s statement that farmworkers with DAPA will leave agriculture.
For too long growers have been able to rely on an oversupply of farm labor and paying below market wages to keep their labor costs down, whether through guestworker programs or by hiring undocumented workers. Like any other business, growers need to follow the economic law of supply and demand to attract and retain farmworkers. That means improving wages and working conditions and introducing more efficiency and fairness into the workforce. Farmworker Justice rejects the demands of some legislators and growers for a new guestworker program that would eliminate wage and other labor protections from the H-2A program and would not include an opportunity for immigration status and citizenship. The only solution to stabilize our labor force is Congressional action that offers the opportunity for legal immigration status and citizenship to undocumented workers. While President Obama's executive action provides valuable relief for those who qualify, the action is limited in that it will only reach a portion of the undocumented farm labor force and does not provide a path to citizenship.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D. Calif.) is reportedly interested in filing a farmworker immigration bill based on the agricultural stakeholder agreement in last year’s Senate bill. However, even if a reasonable compromise farmworker bill passes the Senate, the House is unlikely to take it up. Rep. Goodlatte’s “Agricultural Guestworker Act” that was passed out of the House Judiciary committee in the last Congress is worse than the historically abysmal Bracero program, and would create a massive new guestworker program with low wages and almost no worker protections. Undocumented farmworkers would be expected to self-deport and come back as guestworkers without their family members. In addition to being contrary to American values, Goodlatte’s bill fails to provide needed reforms and lacks the political support to become law.
Farmworker Justice will continue working to build support for meaningful immigration reform in Congress that includes a path to citizenship, and to educate Congressional offices about the problems in the current H-2A guestworker program and with the guestworker reform model. We are also continuing to defend President Obama’s immigration executive actions while educating the farmworker community about administrative relief and planning for implementation in conjunction with the UFW Foundation and the Si Se Puede network, as well as with other immigration advocacy groups.