GOP candidates and lawmakers split over immigration
This is a corrected version of the original post; see the note below.
Immigration is proving a vexing issue for the GOP. During Monday's debate, Republican presidential hopefuls wrangled over border enforcement and driver's licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
Those division are apparently simmering in Congress too, where key Republican leaders are offering competing proposals to help U.S. farmers who say a lack of workers has hurt harvesting efforts.
Last week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced a bill to revamp the agricultural guest-worker program, known as the H-2A visa. Currently, farmers can bring foreign guest workers into the U.S. but must demonstrate that they have sought U.S. workers first. Smith, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, is proposing the creation of a new category of visas. These would be known as H-2C and would carry far fewer requirements. Employers would only be required to "attest" that they had first sought to hire U.S. workers. And the bill would shift oversight of the program from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture.
And this week Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) is set to unveil his plan to help farmers. It would allow foreign farm workers greater mobility by permitting them to work in the U.S. for any agricultural employer. Currently, foreign guest workers are tied to one employer during their time in the U.S. And it would also put the Department of Agriculture in charge of running the program.
Lungren’s bill would not restrict the number of foreign workers allowed in but Smith’s would place a cap of 500,000.
[For the Record, added 11:35 a.m. September 14: The original post said neither bill would restrict the number of foreign workers allowed in. In fact, Smith’s would place a cap of 500,000.]
Lungren's bill is seen as a response to another bill, the Legal Workforce Act ,introduced this summer. That bill would require all U.S. employers to use a database known as E-Verify to confirm that potential workers are eligible to work in the U.S. Farmers would have a three-year grace period before being required to use the verification system.
Still, U.S. growers have criticized the E-Verify and repeatedly acknowledged that they rely on illegal immigrants to harvest crops. Nearly 75% of farm workers in the U.S. are believed to be in the country illegally.
The competing bills underscore how growers who traditionally back the GOP are unhappy with the party over its handling of immigration legislation.
Sooner or later Republicans will need to move beyond just talking about border enforcement and address how to fix a broken immigration system.
Photo: Farm workers lined up as they leave a field of chili peppers for a break at a farm in the Bakersfield area. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times