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Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin

Immigration equation

Politics | A porous border, plus the need to deal "realistically" with millions of illegal immigrants, adds up to calls for reform

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

When Samuel Rodriguez speaks of Arizona these days, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference invokes Charles Dickens: "It's the best of times and the worst of times."

Even for those outside Arizona, it's not hard to find the worst: Proponents of the state's new and controversial immigration law say illegal border crossings and crime are out of control (see "Land without law," by Megan Basham, May 22, 2010). Opponents of the law-including Rodriguez-say the legislation will lead to racial profiling and abuse. Rhetoric runs hot on both sides: In a Washington Times editorial, Ted Nugent called opponents of the law "Democratic numskulls" and "weasels." At a pro-immigration rally in Dallas, some marchers carried signs depicting Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer as a Nazi, suggesting the immigration law she signed will lead to Gestapo-style tactics.

Still, Rodriguez thinks the worst of times could lead to the best result: "It will force the federal government to face immigration reform."

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President Barack Obama promised Hispanic supporters he would produce immigration reform during his first year as president. He didn't. Now, voters on both sides of the immigration debate are demanding the federal government do something about a problem that isn't going away, even as lawmakers hedge on an issue they find politically volatile. Republicans don't want to alienate conservatives, and Democrats don't want to alienate moderates. But neither group wants to brush off Hispanics, the largest minority group in the country.

The volatile issue divides the usual foes, but it also divides common allies, including conservatives. Some conservatives oppose any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, calling such concessions amnesty. Other conservatives-including a number of prominent evangelicals-support what they call a more realistic approach: Punish illegal immigrants with fines, require them to assimilate by learning English, and let them get in the back of the line for citizenship.

Meanwhile, others call for a better program for temporary workers that could encourage legal entry and help U.S. businesses. For example, farmers who hire foreign workers for seasonal labor through legal channels say the Obama administration has complicated the visa process and made following the law more difficult than ever.

Ron Gaskill says most farmers want to comply with the law. Gaskill is an immigration specialist at the American Farm Bureau (AFB) and a member of a farming family. He says many growers looking for outside help to harvest crops apply to hire workers through the U.S. Department of Labor's H2A visa program.

The program that issues temporary visas to foreign workers has long been complicated, but growers found some relief through Bush administration reforms that streamlined the process in 2008. (The edited process reduced some of the bureaucratic hoops, but still carried requirements to protect foreign workers and required that farmers advertise extensively for domestic help before hiring foreigners.)

The relief was temporary: The Obama administration quickly re-instituted the old restrictions, saying the changes would raise wages and better protect workers. AFB filed suit to stop the changes, but a U.S. District Court judge in North Carolina upheld the rules in February. Gaskill described the results: "What you have now is a program that is the most administratively difficult ever for an employer to use."

The difficulties include a wage floor that can change monthly, complicated paperwork, and timelines for approval that don't always coincide with farmers' harvesting schedules. Gerry Addington of Growers Labor Services, a Houston-based labor contracting firm, told a California newspaper that since the changes took effect in March, his company had seen a 40 percent drop in requests for H-2A visas: "In some cases, the growers may be forced to go back to what they had done in the past, which is hire illegally."

While farmers do have a choice in hiring practices, Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute calls the current system "a nightmare" and says a better process for temporary worker visas would encourage legal immigration. He points to the 1950s when Congress beefed up border enforcement and dramatically expanded the visa program for immigrants: "Apprehensions at the border dropped 95 percent."

Expanding a temporary worker program for farm workers and other laborers is part of a bipartisan plan proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The pair penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in March calling for comprehensive immigration reform, including more visas.

By April, Graham said he wouldn't support immigration reform this year and balked at Democrats' plans to push an immigration bill ahead of climate change legislation. He threatened to pull support for both, saying climate change should come first.

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