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President Obama Lays Out Immigration Reform Plans

In his address to the nation focusing on steps moving forward on federal immigration policy, President Barack Obama outlined his plan -- enacted via executive order -- to allow to-date undocumented immigrants to stay in the country if they meet certain criteria and will agree to a few steps.

The president's announcement Thursday allows, among others, immigrant farm laborers to "temporarily stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation" if they:

  • Have been in the country for at least five years.
  • Pass a background check.
  • Pay taxes.

In addition, Obama said Thursday he'll continue efforts to "crack down on illegal immigration at the border" and will continue "deporting felons, not families" and "holding accountable certain undocumented immigrants by requiring they pass a background check and pay taxes."

Securing the border from future illegal immigration, the president added, will remain a high priority and will be bolstered by "continuing to deploy more resources to the border to strengthen enforcement" and focusing on deporting undocumented immigrants who recently crossed the border."

The plan yielded a partisan response from Congressional leaders. Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell called the plan one that "rejects the voice of voters" and "ignores the law" in its initiative as an executive order rather than an act of Congress.

"What does the President have to say to the countless aspiring immigrants who’ve spent years waiting patiently in line? To the people who’ve played by all the rules?" McConnell said in a statement Thursday. “What does the President have to say to the millions of Americans who still can’t find work in this economy? The President can’t reach across the aisle to secure a serious jobs plan for them, but he’s willing to put everything he’s got into this one executive action?"

On the other side of the aisle, Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid called President Obama's announcement "great news for families in Nevada and across the country," adding that, though it's a temporary measure, it continues the Senate's passage of its immigration bill in 2013 that later failed in the House of Representatives.

“The President’s executive action is a good first step; however it is only a temporary solution. President Obama is doing what he can within his well-established constitutional authority but nothing replaces Congress acting on comprehensive immigration reform. So today, while I thank President Obama for his decisive action, I ask my Republican colleagues to put their partisan politics aside and focus their efforts on passing legislation that will permanently fix our broken immigration system," Reid said Thursday. "I will continue to fight until we make immigration reform a reality.”

The implications to Thursday's executive order for agriculture are yet unknown, but it will temporarily secure immigrant farm workers who, if here illegally, can meet the criteria laid out by President Obama. Because it's a temporary measure, ag industry leaders are now calling upon Congress to act once the next session begins.

"As we look forward to the start of the new Congress in January, we strongly urge the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the administration, to come together and pass legislation that both deals with the reality of the current agricultural workforce and recognizes the need for a new, market-based visa program to meet farmers’ future labor needs," according to a statement released Thursday by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, a group representing agricultural employers in the U.S. "Without such legislation, farmers will continue to be unable to find the workers they need to pick crops or care for livestock; more food production will go overseas; local economies across the country will suffer; and the American consumer will pay more for the food they eat. What farmers, ranchers and growers need, and what the American people deserve, is for policymakers in Washington to do their jobs and act to solve the country’s broken immigration system."

In the meantime, it's estimated .25 million farm workers, half of those in California alone, will not face immediate deportation, according to a statement from Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers (UFW).

"We were pleased to learn from the president today that at least 250,000 farm workers will be eligible for deportation relief under his executive action," Rodriguez said in a UFW statement. "The president committed to working with UFW to do everything possible to make sure that every farm worker who qualifies for the program gets enrolled, and we are prepared to work with him and Congress to finish the job by passing legislation that fully addresses this issue once and for all."

Though the farm labor side of agriculture is pleased with the reform plan announced Thursday, it still isn't enough. Right now, the crop sector is well short of meeting its full labor needs, and even though President Obama's plan will allow many workers to remain in the U.S., the industry will continue to incur major costs because of a general labor shortage, says American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman. That will be the case until a more comprehensive visa program can be enacted.

“In practical terms, we do not expect the president’s initiative to help America’s farmers deal with the real labor challenges they face. Our nation loses millions of dollars in fruit and vegetable production every year because farmers cannot find labor to harvest everything they grow. This order will not change that," Stallman says. “Farmers and ranchers need a new, flexible visa program that ensures long-term access to an expanding workforce by allowing foreign-born workers to enter the U.S. We also need to permit some current workers, many of whom have helped sustain our operations for years, to remain working in America."

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