How bad is the need for immigration reform in the U.S.? It's so bad San Joaquin Valley growers, desperate for workers in harvesting operations, processing plants and packing facilities, recently asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein to see if she can get the Department of Homeland Security to essentially ignore some of the laws now in place. It's so bad Feinstein actually agreed to support the idea.
"The reality is that the majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are foreign-born and unauthorized, which is well-known," Feinstein wrote in asking DHS to start looking the other way. The government's aggressive work site monitoring, she wrote, could "deprive the agricultural sector of most of its work force."
As Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, told McClatchy-Tribune News Services last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is "causing a tremendous amount of damage" by auditing and fining employers who say they have no alternative but to hire undocumented non-citizens.
Circumstances are similarly dire in the construction industry where, according to a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America, nearly three-quarters of builders are experiencing labor shortages. The survey of 700 companies across the country found 74 percent saying they can't fill job openings with qualified domestic workers.
Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the contractors association, told the San Francisco Business Times that he expects the labor shortfall to worsen over the next two years. For that reason, the trade association supports immigration reform -- and not simply the version passed recently in the U.S. Senate. The group opposes a provision of the Senate bill that limits construction worker visas.
Construction firms, the trade association's leadership says, must coordinate better with high school vocational training programs, recruit at job fairs, offer internships and mentor trainees -- but all that won't be enough to meet the labor demand. Immigration reform that significantly broadens the worker visa program, the association maintains, is imperative.
What does it say when an entire industry is begging for this kind of relief? What does it say when another industry is asking the government to stop enforcing its current laws? It says the time has come for Congress to reject the institutional dysfunction it has long encouraged and make a serious, good-faith effort to enact constructive change.
Congressional Republicans are fond of calling their party the pro-business (especially pro-small business) party, but their reluctance to move forward on this issue is decidedly anti-business. These labor shortages hit companies' bottom line, hamstringing the economy and detracting from the tax base. These shortages compel many businesses to break the law, leaving them vulnerable to sanction, and perpetuate the absurdity of allowing an invisible, anonymous class to live, work and drive among us.
Clearly, for many members of Congress, the issue isn't figuring out how to effectively manage an economic reality, it's about protecting their right flank from a tea party challenge. Self-preservation trumps duty.
It's long past time for Congress to act on this, and Central Valley representatives should be among those leading the way. House Republicans should be following the lead of Congressmen like Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and make clear to wary conservative constituents that a comprehensive bill that strengthens programs like E-Verify makes us more, not less secure.