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Narrow Immigration Fixes Sought by Employers, Religious Groups

March 30, 2022, 10:00 AM

To secure a bipartisan deal on immigration in Congress, a coalition of employers and faith groups is thinking small.

The Alliance for a New Immigration Consensus is pressing lawmakers to pass legislation centered around protections for farm workers, Dreamers, and recipients of Temporary Protected Status that’s paired with investments in border security.

The emphasis on those groups reflects a focus not on adding new immigrants, but keeping those already here who face ongoing legal uncertainty.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields undocumented young people from deportation and extends legal work authorization, for example, continues to face challenges in court. And Temporary Protected Status for nationals from half a dozen countries—a program targeted by the Trump administration—is in limbo pending appeals, creating doubt for hundreds of thousands of people and the businesses that employ them.

“It’s almost a matter these days of holding onto what you’ve got, which underscores the urgency to pass this kind of legislation,” said Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, which helped convene the new coalition.

Bipartisan Opening

Congressional Democrats’ failure to pass immigration relief through a go-it-alone parliamentary process called reconciliation has added impetus for getting a bipartisan deal—even one with a limited framework.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said this month he plans to advance legislation that could get the 60 votes necessary to avoid being defeated by a filibuster—a proposition that would require Republican support in the evenly divided Senate. That new commitment to a bipartisan approach came after Democrats’ efforts to address immigration in a social spending package without GOP support were repeatedly stymied.

“There’s been widespread acknowledgment now that Build Back Better is not going to be the vehicle for any real immigration changes,” said Kristie De Peña, vice president for policy and director of immigration at the Niskanen Center, which is part of the alliance. “We have to go back to the drawing board and try to do this in a bipartisan way.”

Lawmakers are getting an extra nudge toward acknowledging that legislative reality from the coalition, which includes employer groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, the Charles Koch-backed political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, and religious groups including the National Association of Evangelicals.

Employer Urgency

The Biden administration has taken steps to solidify the status of some targeted immigrant groups, including forthcoming DACA regulations that it hopes will put the program on firmer legal ground. The administration also extended TPS protections, in response to ongoing litigation, for nationals of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal through the end of the year.

But immigration advocates say congressional action is needed soon for the more than 636,000 DACA recipients living and working in the U.S. A federal district court judge declared the program unlawful last year, although the decision, now being appealed, left protections in place for current recipients for now.

At least another 400,000 people have legal status in the U.S. through the TPS program, which offers deportation protection and work permits to people from countries with ongoing armed conflict or environmental disasters. More than 171,000 people from El Salvador—the largest group of TPS recipients—were employed in industries like construction and food services in 2017, according to an American Immigration Council report. If a future administration ended those protections, it would put recipients at risk of deportation and damage the U.S. economy, supporters argue.

“Those are hundreds of thousands of workers that a lot of companies rely on,” said Jorge Lima, senior vice president of policy at Americans for Prosperity. “The uncertainty makes it very difficult for businesses to make decisions.”

Farm Workers

Most of the country’s 2.4 million farm workers, meanwhile, are undocumented. That’s despite access to the H-2A visa program for seasonal agricultural workers, which has no annual caps.

The House passed legislation last year (H.R. 1603) to create a pathway to legal status for agricultural workers and reform the H-2A visa program. But the bill—dubbed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act—has languished in the Senate.

The H-2A program is being stress-tested “in a major way” as farmers seek to replenish their labor forces but is unable to meet much of the need in the industry, said Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of advocacy and research at the horticulture trade group AmericanHort. “It’s not available across the board where it needs to be, it’s expensive, and it’s unpredictable,” he said.

The group, another alliance member, represents plant breeders, greenhouse and nursery growers, landscapers and florists, among others.

Noorani said the coalition isn’t endorsing specific legislation. But the House-passed farm worker bill, as well as bipartisan Senate legislation on border security (S. 1358), are “starting points” for a broader package, he said.

“It really helps if we start with Republicans and Democrats on board,” he said.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, an attorney and professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, cautioned that passing any immigration bill will likely be a long fight, even with commitments to work across the aisle.

“Congress will enact immigration reform only through bipartisan efforts. In that regard, the Alliance for a New Immigration Consensus is a good first step,” he said in an email. “However, I fear that nothing will happen in Congress this year, both because of the midterm elections and the general controversy about immigration in America.”

Supporters of immigration reform, though, must keep pressing Congress on solutions for groups like DACA recipients, regardless of whether they happen in the short-term, said Dane Linn, senior vice president of corporate initiatives and immigration at the Business Roundtable.

“Whether or not it stands a chance of happening doesn’t mean you let your foot off the gas,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com; Laura D. Francis at lfrancis@bloomberglaw.com