Immigration Order Not Enough?

Wine organizations, lawyers agree: Comprehensive reform needed

by Jane Firstenfeld
U.S. president Barack Obama’s executive order about immigration reform met opposition in the U.S. House of Representatives today.
Washington, D.C.—The Nov. 20 announcement of U.S. president Barack Obama’s executive order for immigration reform was welcomed but deemed insufficient by many wine/vineyard organizations—and the attorneys who serve them. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, meanwhile, voted today to roll back the executive order.

Melissa Harms, whose law firm in Larkspur, Calif., specializes in immigration law strategy, explained the provisions of Obama's order in a blog post for Dickenson Peatman & Fogerty. They include:

Deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA): Those who came to the United States before age 16 and meet certain qualifications can remain without fear of deportation and receive work authorization. The expanded program removes the upper age limit for qualified applicants and extends the work authorization to three years.

Deferred action for parents (DAP): Allows parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent resident children to remain united with their families. Parents must have been in the United States since Jan. 1, 2010, and pass a criminal background check.

Provisional waivers: Expanded program allows spouses of lawful permanent residents and children of both U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to apply for waivers. Waivers are required when foreign nationals are eligible for green cards but have been in the United States unlawfully.

Forthcoming changes would include advantages for employees who have approved immigrant visas and are awaiting a priority date. Revamped immigration regulations also will permit promotion or transfer of workers who are awaiting visa approval.

Since the announcement, “Lots of current clients have called to ask how it will affect them,” Harms told Wines & Vines of the executive order. “But even if (the order) stands, most of the provisions will take six months to a year to implement. Most of what I do is business immigration (including many winery clients). I have workers who are business employees waiting up to 10 years for green cards.”

For wineries, vineyards and other agriculture concerns faced with a shrinking labor force, the changes don’t offer much solace. “It doesn’t really touch seasonal workers,” Harms noted. “The amnesty-type programs will only affect those who’ve been here continuously.”

Industry response
The California Association of Winegrape Growers is “in a neutral mode” about the order, according to CAWG president John Aguirre. “From a policy perspective, we don’t see the action as being extraordinarily beneficial to the industry.”

What’s needed, he said, is complete, comprehensive immigration reform. This means action from Congress. “Agriculture has extraordinary issues, because agriculture has many workers who are not properly documented. My concern is that (the order) may have set comprehensive immigration back,” Aguirre said. “It doesn’t really do much for a large portion of the ag workforce if it doesn’t help them in a specific legal way.”

The president made it clear that he wants to focus on enforcement against criminals. “To that extent, people in the ag workforce are comforted. Perhaps it will bring more calm and reassurance,” Aguirre said. “Consistently, with the slightest rumors (of INS crackdowns), people don’t show up for work.”

Aguirre said his primary disappointment is “a lot of finger-pointing associated with the executive order."

“I’m concerned the action is more about political posturing than rolling up the sleeves and getting to work,” he said. “Compromise is necessary: No way any one group is getting everything they want.”

John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said ahead of today's vote, "The president thumbed his nose at the American people with his actions on immigration. The House will make clear today that we are rejecting his unilateral actions." Representatives passed a measure to overturn the executive order 219 to 197.

Not just California

The day before Thanksgiving, Washington, D.C., was “like a ghost town” but Michael Kaiser, director of public affairs at WineAmerica was working. The lobbying group represents more than 600 wineries in all 50 states; Kaiser concurred in general with Aguirre’s assessment that the executive order is insufficient.

He said, however, that it will stand unless it is rescinded or Congresses passes a law. “Proponents would prefer an actual bill,” he added, noting that a U.S. Senate bill never made it to the floor of the House of Representatives.

Though it’s only a partial solution, Kaiser said, “Two things will be beneficial: Border security will now be refocused on actual threats. It will not help people who are not here (in the United States). It doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives some breathing room.”

WineAmerica, he noted, “recommends people hire legally,” but some operations are strapped. “Our position is that this executive order is fine, but not all we need and want.”

He cited the example of an East Coast vineyard that brings in an immigrant family to help with harvest every year. The firm has designated an employee to oversee the visa and hiring process. “If one thing is messed up, one detail missed,” harvest is toast, he said.

WineAmerica and other ag organizations continue lobbying for comprehensive reform, “but it seems less likely every day,” Kaiser said. “This could throw a wrench into everything.”

He noted that the current federal budget expires Dec. 11. Congress could pass a new budget or an omnibus bill that would retain the budget through September 2015, he said. The threat of a government shutdown looms due to political retribution.

Understandably, WineAmerica is especially concerned about funding for the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Funded by appropriation, the bureau’s budget was reduced in 2011 despite a growing demand for its services. “TTB needs proper funding,” Kaiser said. Along with other affected industries, including beer, “We want better funding for TTB.”

Regarding immigration reform, “We want more. People are living here, doing jobs Americans won’t do. We are still pressing for a real bill—real reform. This and TTB funding are our top two legislative issues,” Kaiser said.

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