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.
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