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Hastings Highlights Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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Hastings Highlights Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

101st Annual Washington State Horticultural Association Convention
Prepared Remarks By
Congressman Doc Hastings

I know that comprehensive immigration reform that includes a guestworker program is critical to Washington agriculture. I wanted to give you a first-hand report on the status of immigration reform in Congress - including what I expect to happen as the House of Representatives tackles this thorny issue.

Thanks to your hard work Washington state is the leading producer of the tree fruits you grow. Washington is also a leader in other specialty crops such as grapes, hops and asparagus. As you know, one of the things these crops have in common is that they are all labor intensive. For many decades our region has depended on a migrant workforce to harvest the world-class agriculture products for which we are known. This workforce has helped our economy grow and has played a critical role in keeping Washington agriculture competitive in the global market.

I have talked to many local growers - including some of you here - and I have not heard anyone say that they are opposed to making America safer. We must have control over our borders and illegal immigration must be stopped. What I have heard, loud and clear, is that a new guestworker program must be a part of these efforts. The reality is that our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed - and the most responsible approach is a comprehensive approach.

I agree with President Bush who said in a speech last week that "we will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary worker program." In my view a guestworker program is essential to making America safer. Creating a legal way for hardworking individuals to reside in our country to fill jobs that Americans are not taking will: 1) let us know who is in our country - who is entering and who is leaving. This is fundamental to our national security, 2) help reduce pressures at our borders and 3) reduce motivation for entering our country illegally.

A functional guestworker program is also critical to our economy. Because of the cost and time involved, and the lack of flexibility, the existing H-2A program cannot keep up with the labor needs of our area. With a nationwide unemployment rate of around 5 percent, we are near full employment. There simply is not a ready pool of American workers to fill most of the jobs currently held by migrant farmworkers.

Recognizing that we grow labor intensive crops, and that we use a migrant workforce - I think we can all agree in this room that a "security and enforcement only" approach to immigration reform, without a guestworker component, would devastate our labor supply and crush our economy.

While there is not broad support in Congress for any individual plan, several bills have been proposed to create a streamlined guestworker program that matches employers with the workers they need.

In the House of Representatives Chris Cannon has introduced the "AgJOBS bill." A second plan has been proposed by Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake in the House and by John McCain and Ted Kennedy in the Senate. The Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee has a plan, as do Senators Cornyn and Kyl. And, there are others.

In my view, a new guestworker program must establish a simple way for employers to consistently access the legal and willing workforce they need. The red tape that makes the existing program nearly useless must be cut dramatically - so that you can be assured of having the legal workers you need, where you need them and when you need them.

An easy method of verifying an applicant's eligibility to work should be a component of any plan so that employers are not forced to serve as law enforcement officers. Our growers and agriculture producers are currently in a catch - 22. Should they fail to realize that a realistic looking document is fake, they could face penalties. Should they turn a worker away because they believe a document to be false they can be sued for discrimination. This "damned if you do, damned if you don't" approach must be stopped. Certainly, any nation that can send a man to the moon can develop and have a simple and reliable document verification system.

The program should also provide a means for those who want to work here legally to fill jobs Americans are not taking. I cannot fault anyone for wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families. I daresay most of us have ancestors who came here for that very reason. That is the American way - and it's a tradition deeply rooted in our nation's history.

The undocumented workers who are currently here must be handled in a fair and practical manner. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the estimated 11 million undocumented workers. There are very strong feelings on every side of this issue. Some would like to round everyone up and send them back to their country of origin for good - in a free society, this is neither possible nor practical. For example, what do we do with the 19 year old who was brought here when they were 1 through no choice of his or her own? Others want to provide automatic and immediate citizenship for everyone here illegally - a "blanket amnesty" approach that has failed in the past and that rewards unlawful behavior.

However, there are other proposals aimed at confronting the reality of undocumented workers, while insisting that our laws be obeyed.

These proposals include allowing individuals to earn the right to participate in a guestworker program through work in agriculture and perhaps imposing requirements such as paying fines, submitting to background checks and learning English. There may be others proposals, and all should be considered.

Now that I've told you where I stand, I owe it to you to provide a frank assessment of the political environment in Washington, D.C. and where immigration reform is headed.

There is no consensus in our nation or in Congress - in fact, I doubt that there is consensus in this room - on the best way to fix our immigration system. However, there is widespread agreement that our current immigration laws are not working at our borders and they're not meeting our needs here in Central Washington. Action to strengthen our borders and create a guestworker program is long-overdue - our homeland security and our economic future depend on it.

In Congress there is a nearly unanimous push to strengthen our borders and beef up enforcement. This is to be expected - homeland security is a priority for the entire nation - and therefore a priority for every Member of Congress. However, the farm based areas of our country are very limited. Even the traditional agriculture states do not put a high priority on guestworker programs because the main crops grown there - corn, wheat, soybeans - are so heavily mechanized. So, you reduce it even further to the areas that have labor intensive agriculture and very quickly you will find that the universe of those with a high stake in a new guestworker program and the congressmen who represent them is quite small.

Very, very few Congressmen represent areas that are as dependent upon guestworkers as Central Washington is. Most in Congress represent areas that are not concerned about having a guestworker program at all - but you can bet they are very concerned about border security and enforcement. That is the political reality. This is what we are up against.

The latest plan in the Senate is to consider immigration reform that includes border security and enforcement provisions and probably a guestworker component next year - possibly as early as February.

The House of Representatives currently plans to consider a border security bill and an enforcement bill in the next two weeks - without a guestworker provision. In fact, a border security bill has already been approved by the Homeland Security Committee - with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans. The House of Representatives is likely to approve these border security and enforcement bills before Christmas.

The Senate may include a guestworker provision in the bill they develop next year - so my hope is that the final bill sent to the White House will be comprehensive. But I am not willing to simply sit back and cross my fingers in hopes that this problem gets solved.

That's why I am strongly opposed to the piecemeal approach to immigration reform that the House appears poised to take. Make no mistake - I support strengthening our borders and improving enforcement - but I understand that this must be done in conjunction with providing farmers access to the legal workforce they need. The timing of the three components of comprehensive immigration reform is absolutely critical. Border security, enforcement and guestworker provisions must be implemented in a careful way that does not put even one harvest season in jeopardy.

I am doing everything I can to ensure that a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, including a functional guestworker program, is adopted. I've spent a lot of time listening to local farmers so that at the end of the day I know what you need. I am working with other members of Congress who share my concerns - primarily from California, Florida and a few other parts of the country. But, frankly there aren't very many of us and we aren't getting much help. I'm also making our case to Members of Congress who are on the other side of this issue and oppose guestwoker programs. I'm working with Republicans and Democrats, and I am engaging key congressional leaders - pressing for a comprehensive plan. I've made it very clear that I will be unable to support an immigration reform plan that does not include a guestworker provision.

I know my position will anger many of my constituents who aren't engaged in agriculture and are eager to pull out all the stops to protect America's borders. From past communications it's obvious that you clearly need and want a guestworker program, but thousands of your fellow citizens and taxpayers in Central Washington don't.

So, I would like to ask for your help. First, it is important that agriculture speak with one voice so that you maximize your impact. Second, reach out to your friends, colleagues and associations in other parts of the country. Explain to them how important a guestworker program is. Third, continue to document and openly discuss any labor shortages you experience. Some shortages have occurred in Central Washington, more serious shortages have popped up further South. Labor shortages demonstrate the need for a functional guestworker program. If and when you experience them, I encourage you to let me know, let others know, and explain what shortages mean for the economy and for consumers. Finally, I would ask that you be open to compromise. Feelings run very deep on the issue of immigration. Too many people have drawn a line in the sand and staked out positions at either end of the spectrum from which they will not budge. What I mean by compromise is focus on what you must have and identify what issues you can afford to be flexible on. With issues as complex as immigration reform, it is very rare that anyone gets exactly what they want. Improving our immigration system will take compromise by all sides, and I want to make certain that in the end Central Washington farmers get what they absolutely need.

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