Good Reasons to Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

After months of negotiation and intense debate, on June 27 the U.S. Senate passed S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, with a healthy push from AGree.

Of the approximately two million agricultural workers in the United States, it is estimated that at least half are undocumented immigrants. Specifically relevant to agriculture, S. 744 creates a blue card for existing agricultural immigrants, and would also create an agricultural guest worker program to address the future flow of workers.

Very early in our collaborative process, AGree’s Co-Chairs and Advisory Committee members identified this issue as critical to the continued existence of American agriculture. The time-sensitive nature of many farm, ranch, dairy, and custom harvesting operations and the uncertainty created by the present system made an immigration system that facilitates the employment of skilled seasonal labor from other countries and sets out a path to citizenship for those undocumented agricultural workers who have long worked in food and agriculture -- vital to agriculture, rural communities and to the U.S. as a whole.

AGree convened an important meeting on this issue in 2012 and lobbied the Senate for a strong, comprehensive approach consistent with our principles, which include:

  • Develop a practical and economically viable guest worker program that allows employers to hire legal foreign workers and protects foreign and U.S. farm workers;
  • Ensure quality of life, good working conditions, and opportunities for food and agriculture workers; and
  • Provide more opportunities for farm workers to develop skills and advance their careers within the food and agriculture sector.

Now, our attention is now focused on the House of Representatives, where prospects for passage are in flux. We have not lost our optimism, or our resolve.

Those who oppose comprehensive immigration reform frequently criticize the Senate bill as providing amnesty to those people who may have come to the U.S. illegally. That is really a distortion of the requirements defined in the Senate legislation.

The truth is, no farm worker could apply for legal status until proving they have worked in agriculture for years, paid taxes, kept out of trouble and paid a fine. The hurdles to citizenship would be many and the process would take almost 10 years.

The other argument being used frequently is that the Senate bill will be costly and unfair to American taxpayers.

The independent, non-partisan Congressional Budget Office on June 18 released its score for the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill. The CBO estimated that fixing our immigration system will reduce federal deficits by about $200 billion over the next 10 years, and about $700 over 20 years. The CBO concluded that additional taxes paid by new and legalizing immigrants would not only offset any new spending, but substantially reduce the deficit. A significant portion of the new taxes would be paid by previously undocumented immigrants. While many of these workers already pay federal taxes, millions more will pay payroll taxes once they are able to work openly and legally.

And in addition, on May 8, the Social Security Chief Actuary noted in a letter that the bipartisan Senate immigration bill will strengthen the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund in the short run and in the long run by reforming the legal immigration system and increasing by millions the number of workers who will be paying payroll taxes.

In another interesting twist, polling of Republican primary voters found that 79 percent consider immigration reform “very important” and are open to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, if it includes conditions.

The bill that passed the Senate 68-32 had very strict conditions, safeguards and billions of dollars more spending to ensure border security is strengthened. Its comprehensive approach is something that our farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers need and deserve if America is to remain a world agricultural leader.

Deborah Atwood is the executive director of AGree