It is expected that the House is where the largest tussle will occur over immigration reform. But senators began getting their licks in shortly after an immigration bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

At the same time, House Judiciary Committee hearings proceeded on an agriculture guest-worker program. Overseen by Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the committee, the guest-worker bill could be a fallback for agriculture should a comprehensive reform bill fail in the House.

Full agriculture labor coverage here.

On May 22, sandwiched between farm bill amendments on the Senate floor, lawmakers began to stake out their reform positions.

The importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy was addressed by Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran. Moran looked back to the summer of 2011 when “we’d had 30 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent. I decided it was important to work on legislation to jump-start the economy.”

At the time, said Moran, “nearly all” of the new, net jobs created since 1980 had been created by companies less than five years old. A jobs bill was written to help entrepreneurs continue that trend. Part of that effort “provided new opportunities for highly-educated and entrepreneurial immigrants to stay in the United States…

“I didn’t intend to write an immigration bill. … After reviewing the academic and economic data, it became clear that any strategy to create American jobs must include highly-skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants.”

With that set-up, Moran said the bill just passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “recognizes the importance” of such immigrants.  “The legislation creates new visas for immigrant entrepreneurs and awards points for a merit-based visa. … Yet, this bill could be improved significantly to reflect more accurately how new businesses grow and hire workers. Done right, an entrepreneurs visa has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of needed jobs for Americans.”

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter was much more strident in his warnings about “so-called” immigration reform proposals. Vitter’s “biggest and most fundamental concern” is that the bill headed to the Senate floor “repeats the mistakes of the past because, at its core, its amnesty now and enforcement later – and maybe never. We’ve tried that model before. We’ve tried it several times before and it’s never worked.”

Like others opposed to the legislation, Vitter brought up the 1986 immigration overhaul signed by President Reagan. That legislation provided “amnesty immediately, the second the bill was signed into law. That was a powerful message to invite more and more illegal crossings across the border. … The promises of enforcement never fully materialized.”

That led to a quadrupling of the problem, said Vitter. The original three million illegal immigrants “were mostly made legal…but today, we have 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants – some think more.”

Other Vitter concerns included proper border security, the possibility of the sudden influx of workers depressing wages, and the cost of government programs once the illegal immigrants are eligible to sign up. “The authors of this bill have been very, very clever. They saw the cost issue coming and devised a bill so that the big costs are outside the 10 year budget window. … That’s important because (the Congressional Budget Office) scores legislation primarily on its impact on taxes and spending in the first 10 years. So, the authors were very careful … in devising a bill that would look okay in the first 10 years. But after that 10-year window, the costs explode.”

Vitter equated the CBO scoring of “Obamacare” with the immigration proposals. “This is exactly the same approach … to push many of the costs to the out years beyond the initial scoring window.”

A study by the Heritage Foundation claims the immigration bill would actually cost the nation $6.3 trillion. However, Vitter will surely be dinged or ignored by proponents of the legislation for naming only one author of the study. A second author, Jason Richwine, recently resigned from the conservative think-tank when an extremely controversial paper he’d written, claiming certain races’ IQ levels are subpar, surfaced.

An insider's account

On May 23, Farm Press spoke with Kristi Boswell, American Farm Bureau Federation director of congressional relations, about the immigration reform developments. Among her comments:

On the Goodlatte House agriculture guest-worker legislation…

“We’re very appreciative of Chairman Goodlatte for taking these steps in the House and starting a very important discussion. He recognizes agriculture’s unique needs and has listened to our concerns and tried to address them in his bill (H.R. 1773).

“Officially, we’re still waiting to see how everything plays out in the House. But it’s a positive first step.”

There are rumblings that some of the leadership in the House, rather than do a comprehensive immigration reform bill, want to break it up into pieces. Is that your understanding?

“It’s still up in the air. There’s the (‘Group of Eight’) that is bipartisan and working together on a comprehensive bill. Late last week, they reported having an agreement in principle and are putting it together in legislative language.

“Then, there is a sense that some members would be more comfortable doing it piece by piece and debating each issue individually.

“So, it’s still unclear how everything will unfold in the House. We do feel positive that there’s an appetite (for immigration reform) and that’s why (Goodlatte’s work) is very helpful. But at the end of the day, our goal is to get something that will come out of the House with full support that can go to conference.”

What about worker cap numbers in both the House and Senate? The senate proposal would bring in just north of 112,000 workers a year. Some lawmakers – including Goodlatte -- are calling for at least 500,000. Does the AFBF have a hard number you’re aiming for?

“From our policy stance, we don’t support caps.

“However, there are political realities we’re facing. When we were in Senate negotiations with the United Farm Workers Union it was clear that a cap was a reality. So, we wanted to make sure the cap would meet our needs and could be increased in emergency situation. And in the long run – which is really where our focus for the guest-worker program lies – there must be an annual determination by the Secretary of Agriculture.

“That’s how the Senate bill weighs it out. The 112,000 is a compounding cap – so, it’s actually 337,000 in a five-year period. From five years on, it will be an annual determination.

“I think there’s a question about what is the ideal number. No one knows what our needs will be and how many workers will remain in agriculture that are currently in the field. It’s a matter of finding a balance and providing safeguards.”

On the Senate bill coming out of the Judiciary Committee…

“The bill was introduced in late April and the Judiciary Committee began to hold hearings. Almost 300 amendments were filed in the committee process. Through five full days and into the evening of mark-up sessions, the committee worked through about 150 amendments.

“I commend (Vermont) Sen. Pat Leahy, chairman of the committee, for his leadership. Everyone had their time and fully talked and debated while he kept the process moving.”  

On the time frame for immigration reform legislation moving on Capitol Hill…

“We’ve heard that (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid wants to have this bill on the floor in June. So, if it doesn’t happen the first week after (the Memorial Day) recess, then it should happen shortly after.

“I expect it to be on the Senate floor for as long as it takes. I think (Reid) is committed to giving it ample time so long as the discussion remains productive. Hopefully, before the July 4 recess, we’ll have an outcome on the bill in the Senate.

“In the House, the ‘Gang of Eight’ still hasn’t released legislative language. I expect that will happen in early June. Farm Bureau met with (Goodlatte) this week and he indicated he’s ready to start the process. The House will probably experience a more methodical process with the bill than in the Senate.”