OMAHA (DTN) -- A broader debate on ag labor and immigration could come from President Donald Trump's decision to end federal protection for roughly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants granted temporary immunity from deportation by former President Barack Obama.
The move by the White House puts the onus on Congress to take some action by March 5, 2018, to create some legislative solution for people protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
"I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents," Trump said in a statement. "But we must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws."
In announcing the decision, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said DACA immigrants "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens." Still, the White House claimed the DACA immigrants will not be priority targets for deportation.
The Trump administration's decision adds to an already full legislative agenda for Congress, which returned Tuesday from the August recess. Beyond disaster aid, passing the federal budget, increasing the debt limit, writing and debating tax reform, advancing a possible 2018 farm bill and considering an infrastructure package, Congress must now add immigration reform to its agenda as well.
Tossing immigration into the mix means the GOP-led Congress and the Trump administration would be trying to achieve legislative wins that haven't occurred since 1985-86, when President Ronald Reagan and a divided Congress passed a farm bill, immigration reform and tax reform all in a two-year window.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would be at the center of any legislation dealing with the DACA youth or any other immigration measures. Grassley told reporters Tuesday that the battle over an immigration bill could lead to possible additions such as language dealing with an agricultural guest-worker program.
"That would be a piece of legal immigration that I would put into that category," Grassley said.
While some lawmakers called for a bill just dealing with DACA, Grassley said he did not think such a bill would pass Congress. Compromise, though, would be necessary.
"The bottom line of it is I don't think DACA as a clean bill can get through Congress by itself," Grassley said. "I could be wrong on that. If I am wrong, I'll have to stand wrong. But it's also an opportunity for compromise between people who want DACA, plus a lot of other things dealing with legal immigration, and I suppose some things dealing with illegal immigration that probably can be packaged together."
Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association, said it is hard to know how many dairy workers in his state would be directly affected, but he knows at least a few dairy producers called looking for DACA documentation after the program was first announced.
"We do know there are some engaged, but we don't have a hard number what that would be," Naerebout said.
He added that the unemployment rate in Idaho is about 2.5%, making it a tough challenge for any agricultural or food-production employer to replace workers that may be forced to leave because of the DACA repeal.
Naerebout said the six-month delay by President Trump provides a chance to push for broader immigration reform. He noted House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has legislation dealing with ag labor ready to roll out.
"We do believe having the immigration debate is an important debate to have, and getting Congress to act on it is critical," Naerebout said.
Seventy agricultural groups had joined a letter in March to President Trump asking for changes to immigration policies to ensure agriculture had a legal, stable supply of workers. The ag groups asked for a modernized system that would legalize the current workforce as well as make it easier to bring in guest workers.
On DACA, specifically, few ag groups have explicit policy, noted Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of industry advocacy and research with AmericanHort, a lobby group for nursery and landscaping industries.
Regelbrugge stated to DTN in an email, "There are more than a few DACA recipients working in various ag industries."
To the broader point, Congressional action is really the needed solution in the longer term, both with DACA and our issues, Regelbrugge added. "And so maybe a bit of opportunity amidst the peril."
Tuesday's announcement sparked rallies and protests in some American cities. In Lincoln, Nebraska, a noon rally had multiple speakers, including Jim Partington, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association.
"The restaurant industry attracts immigrants as entry-level employees," Partington said. "Our restaurants don't depend on immigrant labor to the extent of California, New York or other places would, but it's still significant. Those immigrants who work in the restaurant industry do a good job, and in fact they have a tendency to eventually save up some money and start their own restaurants."
Partington said there may be roughly 3,000 or so DACA immigrants in Nebraska. The restaurant association is part of the Nebraska Coalition for Immigration Reform, which includes several business interests in the state.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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