California farmers’ objections could kill conservative immigration bill

WASHINGTON — House conservatives’ effort to enact a controversial immigration bill has met a quiet but fierce foe: California farmers. Their opposition to farm labor provisions in the legislation — and their sway with influential California Republicans — are a big part of the reason the House is unlikely to move forward with an immigration bill this year.

Last week, a California Farm Bureau Federation delegation flew to Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings with members of Congress and their staff to highlight their concerns about a House Republican proposal that would protect young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” but also includes provisions they believe would gut California’s agricultural labor force.

The state’s farm lobby objects, specifically, to provisions in the bill that would cap agricultural work visas, mandate that companies confirm their employees’ legal status using the online e-verify system and require existing workers here illegally to go back to their country of origin before they can return on an agricultural work visa.

Conservatives, led by the House Freedom Caucus, have demanded House leaders advance the bill, authored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, as their solution to the “Dreamers” crisis. President Donald Trump announced last fall he was terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program that granted them legal status beginning March 5. A federal judge in San Francisco has temporarily blocked the government from enforcing that decision, however, until there is further legal review.

Still, immigrant rights advocates are demanding Congress pass a law to permanently enshrine the DACA program and end the legal limbo for these residents. And they are looking to the House to act, after the Senate deadlocked on its attempt at an immigration compromise last month.

House Republican leaders are under pressure from conservative members to hold a vote on the Goodlatte bill, which they’ve promised to do if they are confident it has enough Republican support to pass. That hasn’t happened yet, thanks in large part to the concerns of GOP members from farm states and districts, as well as some moderates who dislike its restrictions on legal immigration.

In mid-February, Goodlatte introduced an amended version to try and soothe agricultural industry nerves. It helped win the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation, although the national lobbying group said in a statement they were still working to get “greater assurances on how the [bill] would affect our existing workforce.”

California and Western state agricultural groups are still not on board, however.

“We don’t think it’s a solution that fixes our problem in California,” explained Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for California Farm Bureau Federation, who helped lead the recent delegation to Washington. The group held meetings with representatives of 11 California Congress members — both Democrats and Republicans — as well as staff for California’s senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

“We’ve never done a trip quite like this one, where we take employer and employee and have them both talking about their equities in the issue,” said Little. The California Farm Bureau Federation’s board also held meetings in Washington in February, where immigration policy and its impact on agricultural labor was “the featured issue,” Little said.

Other influential farming groups are also bringing the full force of their lobbying power to bear on the House debate. “We’re having constant communications with Republicans in Congress about this,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, headquartered in Irvine, Calif. Like other industry groups, Nassif says his members support an overhaul of the H-2A visa program for seasonal workers that the Goodlatte bill proposes. But the legislation creates more problems, he said, including the so-called “touchback” provision requiring current workers to return to their legal country of residence.

California’s agricultural sector has a particularly high reliance on seasonal workers and those in the country without documentation. “We don’t believe, after talking to our farmers, that people here with false documents are going to raise their hand … and touch back,” said Nassif. Combined with the threat of mandatory e-verify checks, California farmers fear those workers will simply flee, and “then we lose our entire workforce,” he said.

The state’s farm lobby believes California Republicans in Congress understand their concerns and say they are helping to block the Goodlatte bill from moving forward in its current form.

“I would say that Congressmen [David] Valadao and [Jeff] Denham have both been very active in trying to defeat this bill,” Nassif said of the two Central Valley Republicans. Both men are sponsors of a clean DREAM Act, which would grant legal status for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. They’ve also signed onto a bipartisan bill introduced in January that would combine protections for those young immigrants with some border security measures.

More significantly for the state’s agriculture interests, lobbyists say House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is firmly in their corner.

The Bakersfield-area congressman has been relatively reserved about the legislation in public. Spokesperson Matt Sparks told McClatchy the second-ranking Republican in the House believes the legislation “is a good bill, and with the ongoing member listening sessions to address concerns he is confident it can become an even stronger bill for the floor.”

But behind the scenes, agricultural sector leaders say, he’s been actively working to make sure any DACA deal doesn’t hit his home state. McCarthy’s district encompasses most of Kern County — the heart of California farming and the fourth largest agricultural producing county in the country, according to the Bakersfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of the Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, said she’s confident McCarthy is “not going to let something go through that’s going to hurt California agriculture.” As a result, her organization and others are trying not to stir up a big, public fight about the bill. “We’re very cautious about not making this World War III when it’s already so politically challenging for those that need to help us,” Raudabaugh explained.

Nassif agreed that McCarthy has been a key factor in the ongoing discussions. “We’ve relied on him to make sure that there’s not a vote on the floor unless we get [the workforce issues] fixed,” he said.

Most of the California farming groups The Sacramento Bee spoke with were not optimistic that a fix is coming anytime soon. Goodlatte, they said, has made clear he’s not interested in making further agriculture-related concessions. And House conservatives have the numbers to block a more moderate bill — unless Republicans decide to work with Democrats, which would spark an uproar within their own party.

Montse Reyes

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Montse Reyes

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