While farm organizations may favor a comprehensive immigration overhaul, Republican presidential contenders offer some differing stances on how to deal with immigration, an issue that continues to divide the GOP given the battles with President Barack Obama over his executive actions.
In a stance closer to the current White House occupant than some of his GOP brethren, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said at the Iowa Ag Summit on Saturday that undocumented immigrants already in U.S. need a path to legalization. No one right now has a plan to deal with those undocumented immigrants here now, he said. Those people should pay fines, learn English, work, do not receive government assistance and come out of the shadows.
"This is the only serious, thoughtful way of dealing with this and we better start doing it because this is a competitive world," Bush said. "We are not operating on all of our cylinders right now to be successful."
Such a stance could become a significant challenge for Bush in the months ahead as candidates seek to lock up conservative support. Still, Bush said the U.S. needs to move away from an immigration system based heavily on family petitions that are broad in regards to who qualifies as family. The country also should look at the way Canada has broadened its visas for economic circumstances and business.
"Canada has more economic immigrants then we do and we're ten times their size," Bush said.
That would include a guest-worker program for agriculture based on demand, he said.
Farm groups have championed a comprehensive immigration reform that would overhaul the current H2A guest-worker program and open that program up to bring in more temporary workers. Currently, H2A brings in about 70,000 people for an industry that employs roughly 2 million people on the farm. Various studies estimate as high as 70% of the agricultural workforce nationally could be filled now with people in the country illegally.
Farm organizations also supported language in the 2013 Senate bill that would have legalized farm workers now in the country illegally and put them on a path to citizenship. That bill passed the Senate but was never taken up in the House.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Saturday that current immigration laws should be enforced to make them work. That would include improving the H2A guest-worker program and making sure employers use the E-Verify system. "This is the uncertainty that has gone on because our national leaders have not been able to deal with this issue head on," Christie said. He added, "We should have a clear, reliable guest-worker program that people in agriculture can rely on."
Bush also said businesses also need an E-Verify system that is truly verifiable so there will be more confidence moving forward. Christie also called E-Verify a great tool. However, agricultural groups have opposed mandating E-Verify on farms. Farm groups oppose a House bill that moved out of committee just last week that would force all employers to use E-Verify nationally.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry concentrated more on border security arguments and declared that President Obama and Congress have destroyed any trust that Washington, D.C., can address immigration. Perry would put more people and fencing on the southern border, as well as ramp up aerial surveillance.
"Then the American people will trust Washington to come up with a sensible immigration policy that works," Perry said.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said there is overwhelming bipartisan agreement about securing the borders. He also thinks there is substantial agreement to improve and streamline legal immigration. Cruz notes he is the son of an immigrant from Cuba who risked everything for freedom.
Cruz also would streamline the H2A program. "Right now, the H2A program is so cumbersome, so difficult to deal with."
Cruz also declared the president and Senate Democrats have been focused on partisan politics.
Yet, Sen. Lindsey Graham also noted that Congress will have to negotiate with each other to deal with immigration. That would include registering the undocumented people here now and determining who would be allowed to stay.
"Some can stay and some have to go away," Graham said. He added, "There will never be an immigration reform bill where you get everything you want and the other side doesn't"
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