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Biden admin restarts immigration bill

Potentially the most important news to affect the produce industry this week is new labor legislation proposed by the Biden administration immediately after taking power.

It is entitled the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 (USCA; for a summary, see here).

As the summary indicates, one of the law’s principal goals is to provide “hardworking people who enrich our communities every day and who have lived here for years, in some cases for decades, an opportunity to earn citizenship.”

The National Law Review summarized these provisions as follows:

“The USCA’s most progressive and controversial provision is its eight-year path to citizenship for most undocumented foreign nationals already in the U.S. as of January 1, 2021. Most applicants would first register for a five-year period of temporary legal status, followed by a three-year lawful permanent residency (aka green card) status. At the end of the combined eight-year period, applicants could apply for U.S. naturalization. Eligible Dreamers, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers would be permitted to skip the five-year first step and move straight to applying for lawful permanent residency/green card status. All applicants would be required to pass stringent criminal and national security background checks and pay U.S. taxes.”

This process entails a “path to citizenship” for undocumented residents, or (depending on your ideological proclivities) “amnesty.” And amnesty is not popular with everyone.

“Republicans have already expressed skepticism about providing a pathway to citizenship for those already in the country without documentation, which is often referred to as amnesty,” reports The Hill.

Other provisions of USCA include technological improvements in border enforcement and, strikingly, increased aid for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (countries of origin for many of the most recent immigrants) “conditioned on their ability to reduce the endemic corruption, violence, and poverty that causes people to flee their home countries,” according to the legislative summary.

One thing the bill will not support is the continued construction of a wall along the southern border of the United States, a major project of the Trump administration.

Indeed, in a separate proclamation, President Biden ordered immediate cessation of construction of the wall.

Responses from ag interests to USCA were generally favorable. Dave Puglia, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, for example, issued the following statement:

“President Biden’s decision to send Congress an immigration reform bill on his first day in office sends a clear statement about his commitment to resolving one of the most pressing issues facing the agriculture industry. We are encouraged by the President’s focus on modernizing the immigration system and are confident we can work within his framework to fully address the agricultural labor crisis. As we did on a bipartisan basis in 2013 and 2019, we will collaborate with our Congressional champions to ensure that the two key needs of American farmers are met in any legislative package that arrives on the President’s desk—an earned pathway to legalization for our existing, experienced workers and a streamlined temporary nonimmigrant program that provides a reliable future flow of guest workers.”

On the other hand, agriculture interests had been similarly supportive of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, which had been passed by the Democratically controlled House of Representatives but failed to be taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Will Biden’s new law fare better now that Democrats are in control of both Houses of Congress? Anyone making predictions about the success of passing legislation in the near future is either brave or foolhardy, but the new plan seems to stand a better chance.

To take the larger view, one thing seems clear from the history of recent decades: the immigration problem is not going to be solved for the produce industry without some provision for permanent residency and eventual citizenship for many if not most resident aliens. Even if you call it amnesty.

Richard Smoley, an editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 11 books.