This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Despite all the complaints about partisan gridlock in Congress, Senate Republicans have joined Democrats to produce an artfully negotiated immigration reform package.
The country needs this legislation — but that doesn’t guarantee it will clear the House. Hard-line Republicans in that chamber are still grumping about amnesty and demanding a hermetically sealed border before they’ll consider giving some kind of legal status to the estimated 11 million people living in this country illegally.
There’s common ground to build on, though: Even in the House, many Republicans recognize the need to legalize the status of the workers who harvest crops, slaughter livestock, cultivate nurseries and otherwise keep American agriculture in business.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly half of America’s farm labor force is illegal. Washington – one of the nation’s leading farm states – is especially dependent on unauthorized workers.
At least two-thirds of the people who harvest this state’s apples, cherries, grapes and pears could theoretically be deported. In other words, enforcing the current law would destroy entire industries — proof that the law has to be adjusted to reality.
At some point in the near future, even nonfarmers are going to realize what a godsend those workers are. Mexico — where most illegal farm labor comes from — is getting wealthier and exporting fewer low-wage laborers. Harvesting is backbreaking work; even in the Great Recession, few unemployed Americans from other industries were willing to endure it.
A country looking at a scarcity of farm workers had best figure out how to hang on to them. Threatening to kick them out is not the way to do it.
The senators who worked on immigration reform get that. Their legislation would give permanent agricultural laborers a five-year fast track to legal status. (Other groups would have to wait at least 10 years.)
It would also make it easier for growers and other agricultural employers to bring in guest workers, chiefly from Mexico, under the existing H-2A temporary visa system. Employers have long complained that the current program is too rigid and bureaucratic for enterprises that must adapt quickly to weather and field conditions.
In agriculture, the need for fixing immigration law is beyond argument. But many of the problems are the same outside of agriculture.
It’s impossible to send those millions back to where they came from and stupid to keep them in a netherworld disconnected from the law. Let them work openly and legally — on the farm or in the city.