U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reached into Rep. Kevin McCarthy's home district Friday to push for passage of an immigration reform bill that has stalled in the House of Representatives.
Armed with a new White House report touting economic and other benefits of a comprehensive reform package, Vilsack called The Californian urging McCarthy's constituents to put pressure on the Bakersfield Republican.
"I would think that if constituents were educated about this issue and know the benefits of a more secure border (and) expanding economy ... they would say to Rep. McCarthy, 'We don't care how you get this done but we expect you to get it done,'" Vilsack said.
The exclusive interview with a member of President Obama's cabinet came as California immigrant rights and labor groups, as well as farming associations grappling with a worker shortage, urge McCarthy to support a House vote on a bill similar to the one passed by the Senate June 27.
McCarthy was unavailable for comment Friday. But last month he issued a statement ruling out House consideration of the Senate bill, instead calling for work on a "step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken immigration system."
He stated that the nation's borders must be secured "as a first step in developing a long-term, realistic and enforceable solution" to immigration reform.
Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who has served in Obama's cabinet since January 2009, asserted that he had not realized until Friday's interview that Bakersfield was home to the third most powerful Republican in the 435-member House. Nevertheless, he welcomed the opportunity to send a message to McCarthy's constituents.
"I understand people's concerns about border security, but that is not an excuse for not doing this (immigration reform) in a comprehensive way," Vilsack said, adding that the Senate bill would spend an unprecedented sum to increase border security.
Vilsack later said he would support a series of smaller reform bills in place of one comprehensive bill like the Senate's, as long as the two legislative bodies can work out their differences on the matter.
He went on to say this all must be done soon because elections coming next year will make legislative progress unlikely.
NEW NUMBERS FROM WASHINGTON
The report Vilsack referred to about the need for immigration reform was released by the White House Monday. It estimates that enacting the Senate bill would increase the nation's gross domestic product by $2 billion in 2014, mainly by boosting farm production.
The report projected that, without immigration reform, California alone would suffer agricultural production losses ranging from $1.73 billion to $3.12 billion within 15 years. That's because nearly three-quarters of the state's farmworkers are not citizens and, therefore, subject to deportation.
The report also estimated that 9,426 new jobs would be created in California if the Senate bill is approved by the House and signed by the president.
The Senate proposal would do this by offering the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrant workers a chance at citizenship.
Special provisions would give farmworkers "blue cards" if they pass background checks and prove they have paid applicable taxes. Workers over the age of 21 would have to pay a $100 penalty in addition to a processing fee.
The cards would give farmworkers permission to continue working in the country and allow them to apply for permanent residency after five years. Eventually they could earn citizenship, as could their spouse and children.
Although farmworker advocates and grower associations worked together on parts of the bill, in Kern County they have tried to build support for it separately and in very different ways.
The United Farm Workers labor union has staged recent rallies in front of McCarthy's Bakersfield office. It has been joined by immigrant rights advocates around the state calling for the congressman to do right by farmworkers. The next such gathering is set for Monday morning.
UFW spokeswoman Maria Machuca said Friday that, above all, the union wants a House vote on a bill similar to the Senate's immigration reform package. She also voice support for the new report and Vilsack's call to action.
"We definitely agree with Mr. Vilsack and we really hope that lawmakers like McCarthy could also look at these facts and do what's best for our communities," she said.
Local and state ag trade groups have been less public with their support for reform, preferring to apply pressure to lawmakers through letters and lobbying efforts.
Meanwhile, Central Valley farmers are offering wage increases and other incentives to attract laborers faced with better-paying job opportunities elsewhere.
The California Farm Bureau Federation surveyed growers last year to determine the scope of the problem. It found that 61 percent of the 794 farmers and ranchers who filled out survey responses between August and October reported being unable to find all the temporary workers they needed. A follow-up survey is under way.
In June, Kern County Farm Bureau Inc. sent letters to McCarthy and Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, stating that some kind of immigration reform is "imperative" for the county to continue feeding the state, the nation and the world.
The letter spells out specific requests, including "adequate legal full-time workforce" for farmers, and a temporary visa program without an increased minimum wage or employer requirements for worker housing.
In Friday's interview, Vilsack called attention to the rare combination of groups supporting the Senate bill: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, evangelicals and liberals, farmers and the UFW.
"You have all of that in this particular circumstance," he said.