By The Gazette Editorial Board
Five years ago today, the immigration reform debate became much more real and closer to home for Eastern Iowans.
On May 12, 2008, federal immigration agents and local law enforcement raided the former Agriprocessors meat packing facility in Postville and arrested nearly 400 immigrant workers, charging most with entering the country illegally and using false identification documents. The raid, at that time the largest in U.S. history, stunned the small community and the region, jolting families, schools and businesses.
In the weeks afterward, reports of unsafe working conditions in the plant, child labor law violations and other troubling disclosures trickled into the public consciousness.
And it all occurred just months after Congress failed to approve comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. This editorial board took note two days after the raid.
“Last year’s congressional stalemate on immigration policy haunts Postville today,” we wrote on May 14, 2008. ”The illegal immigration issue is more than border security. Many U.S. companies rely on millions of immigrants, legal and otherwise, to fill jobs that often are low-paying and involve physically difficult working conditions. Financially desperate people who can’t get work visas are willing to risk sneaking across the border to take those jobs.
“Surely there’s a better way for America to handle this dilemma. Where is the leadership and cooperation we need from Congress and the White House?”
THE SENATE PLAN
Five years later, the U.S. Senate is embarking on another effort to pass comprehensive reform. And for those of us who see Postville as an enduring symbol of an immigration system in desperate need of critical repairs, the current version of reform, though massive, thorny and remarkably complex, offers rays of hope.
In its current form, the bipartisan Senate reform plan offers temporary legal status to immigrants and their families who entered the county illegally before the end of 2011, but who also have worked here, haven’t committed other crimes, have paid the taxes they owe and a $500 fine. They’d be eligible to remain here for work, but would be ineligible for any means-tested government benefits. They also would have to wait at least 10 years to seek permanent residency.
The reform measure would make new “W” visas available, for the first time, to lower skill workers, such as those who worked in Postville. As many as 200,000 such visas could be available over several years. The W visa is the product of a compromise between labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Within five years, all U.S. employers would be required to use an improved E-Verify system to determine the legal status of prospective employees, or face fines, and even prison time, for failing to do so. The measure also improves protections for workers who face abuse.
A realistic cost estimate of this reform plan is yet to be determined. That’s a big question mark.
Border security remains a top priority, with most provisions granting legal status tied directly to the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to create new boarder security plans and meet lofty enforcement benchmarks. Billions of dollars would be spent on surveillance, fencing and new personnel. National Guard troops would be used.
Americans’ Social Security numbers would be protected by beefed-up security measures. And the government would establish a new system to track visa holders already in the country.
Cast what happened at Postville against this reform framework, and it becomes clear that our elected leaders are seeking to fix the problems that we’ve repeatedly urged them to fix.
“If this would have been in place, there wouldn’t have been a Postville,” said Lori Chesser, a Des Moines attorney with 20 years of experience with immigration law.
“It’s been frustrating. Congress has known about this problem for a long time. It’s just been political failure to act, which has caused all different kinds of people problems. So I’m just so happy to see them take a real stab at doing it. And I think we have to do it this year,” she said.
Chesser and others say reform is also about Iowa’s future.
Provisions in the reform bill would also expand the availability of visas for high-skilled foreign workers and make it easier for students educated at Iowa colleges and universities to stay and work here after graduation. That could be significant for states such as Iowa, that face potential skilled worker shortages.
“Jobs in the middle-skill and high-skill categories will become increasingly difficult to fill because of demographic changes, structural change in the economy, and divergent skill distributions,” Iowa Workforce Development said in an assessment of Iowa’s 2025 workforce needs released last year.
“It’s a huge issue and we can’t ignore it,’ said John Stineman, an Iowa consultant to the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of CEOs and mayors. Stineman is also executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, although the alliance has taken no official position on immigration reform.
“Iowa has a long history of having open arms for immigrants. And it’s not just a philosophical issue, but it’s a matter of economics. Iowa has a lot to gain economically,’ Stineman said.
Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell-Collins is among a large coalition of American businesses that would like to see relaxed limits on H-1B visas for highly skilled workers as part of immigration reform. “I do think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Tom Hobson, senior manager of government affairs at Rockwell-Collins, of the bipartisan reform effort.
Of course, the immigration reform debate is far from over, The Senate Judiciary Committee has just begun the process of amending the legislation, and big changes are possible. Iowa’s senior U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is the top Republican member of the committee, and promises to have a large role in the process.
Grassley has expressed multiple concerns about the effort, in particular that it doesn’t do enough to protect our borders as it grants temporary legal status to immigrants who came here illegally. He’s concerned that the measure gives too much discretion to the Department of Homeland Security and doesn’t set high enough benchmarks for success.
“Security is the basis of the sovereignty of any nation. We must have independent authority over our borders,” Grassley told the committee last month.
We agree. But security, no matter how robust, will have its limits along a lengthy, rugged border. And we don’t believe those inevitable limits should be used as an excuse to, yet again, scrap much needed reform. It’s been five years since Postville showed us the consequences of a failed immigration system. Iowa and the nation have waited long enough.l Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or (319) 398-8262