George Boardman: LaMalfa’s an enthusiastic supporter of (farm worker) immigration reform | TheUnion.com
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George Boardman: LaMalfa’s an enthusiastic supporter of (farm worker) immigration reform

George Boardman
Columnist

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa has been a loyal foot soldier for President Donald Trump, backing him on practically every initiative since Trump took office almost three years ago.

That includes illegal immigration, a touchy issue for LaMalfa’s farming brethren. When Trump issued two executive orders calling for construction of a border wall, along with a series of actions to curtail illegal immigration, LaMalfa joined the president at the battlements.

“I support President Trump’s swift and decisive action to deliver on the promises he made to the American people to enforce our nation’s immigration laws,” LaMalfa declared in a 2017 press release. “None of these are more important than securing our southern border and combating illegal immigration…I am glad to see the president is taking action without hesitation and truly putting America first.”

His fellow farmers were reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, mainly because they rely on an estimated 500,000 workers who are in the country illegally. If immigration hard-liners ever succeed in throwing those people out of the country, California’s ag industry will literally rot in the fields.

But master politician Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill once observed that “All politics is local,” and so we are treated to the spectacle of LaMalfa consorting with known Democrats to come up with a bill that will give legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal farm workers in exchange for stronger employee verification in the agricultural sector.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, chair of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, led negotiations on the deal with LaMalfa and fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Don Newhouse of Washington state.

“The men and women who work America’s farms feed the nation,” Lofgren said in a statement. “But farm workers across the country are living and working with uncertainty and fear, contributing to the destabilization of farms across the nation. Our bill offers stability for American farmers.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act offers a path to legal status — either five-year visas or citizenship — for longtime U.S. agriculture workers with clean records. It would also overhaul the farm visa system to make it easier for employers to file applications, would limit mandatory wage increases, and would provide year-round visas for industries like dairy farms that aren’t seasonal.

The bill also incorporates legislation by U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, beefing up the system for verifying a worker’s immigration status in the U.S. and making it mandatory for the agricultural industry.

“Agriculture’s been in desperate need of a stable, solid labor pool for a long time,” LaMalfa said. “A formal system of documentation will be better for the workers, it’ll be better for the farmers, it will be better for the nation’s security.”

The bill passed the House last month by a vote of 260-165 after Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared on the floor to make an unusual, personal appeal to colleagues to support the bill, which was backed by major farm groups as well as the United Farm Workers.

“It is bipartisan and it is important for us to pass it,” she said, calling the measure “a historic victory for farm workers and for growers, which will ensure that America can continue to feed the world.”

But House Republicans were less than enthusiastic. Just 34 Republicans voted for the House measure, and only five of the 21 Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee backed the measure. LaMalfa was one of the five.

Conservatives who opposed the bill portrayed it as amnesty for people in the country illegally. The Heritage Foundation said it “would bless the actions of aliens and agriculture employees who have ignored the law.” According to U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, “This bill will allow people to get amnesty. They will leave agriculture, and they will go into another industry.”

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in the House impeachment debate, represents a lot of poultry farmers in his Georgia district, but he’s not breaking with Trump on this issue. He echoed the president’s claim that illegal immigrants are a bunch of criminals.

“The bill allows aliens with multiple DUI convictions and charges to get amnesty,” he said. “It forgives Social Security fraud and awards aliens who engage in such fraud with a path to U.S. citizenship.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the only Democrat California farmers like, said she will support the bill. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Trump has been briefed on the legislation, but the White House has been silent on his position. The bill will never come to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t get an indication from the White House that Trump will sign it.

You can bet immigration hard-liners will oppose the measure, and Trump has made it clear in recent months that he is going to punish California. For his part, LaMalfa emphasized the bill’s narrow scope, noting that it applies only to the agriculture sector, and said he believes it would be a win for Trump. He said he hopes it can be kept “in its own protective little bubble,” away from the fight over broader immigration policy.

That’s not likely to happen. The immigration issue resonates with Trump’s base and they want a hard-line approach, the same one LaMalfa advocated back in 2017 and has supported since then. As a farmer, he should know you reap what you sow.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at boredgeorgeman@gmail.com.


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