By: Kristina Peterson and Laura Meckler on July 1, 2014
Industry groups that have pressed for new immigration laws are trying to determine whether they can salvage smaller, narrowly drawn relief for their businesses from the collapse of the broad immigration legislation in Congress.
Their hopes are dim. Many Democrats say they don't want to ease problems only for certain industries, as that would eliminate their leverage in pressing House Republicans to reverse their opposition to a wider overhaul.
With no congressional relief on the way, some businesses are wondering if President Barack Obama can help solve their problems through administrative action. They are also considering whether the time has come to break the compact that has bound their interests together to push for a sweeping immigration rewrite, and instead lobby for industry-specific measures.
"One of the things that's likely to be discussed is whether or not an incremental approach is more viable from a legislative perspective," said Geoff Burr, vice president of government affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, who noted there were valid concerns about that approach.
The National Milk Producers Federation said it would look for solutions to its problems finding year-round workers under the current agricultural-visa system, which provides permits only for seasonal jobs. Initially, the group will see if it can assuage farmers' worries about government raids and deportations through administrative action by Mr. Obama, said Jim Mulhern, president of the group, which still backs a broad overhaul.
Mr. Obama on Monday declared the long-debated immigration push dead for the year, after House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said his chamber wouldn't vote on it. The president vowed to take action on his own. While Mr. Obama has some powers to adjust immigration policy—he is looking at shielding more illegal immigrants from deportation, for example—the broadest changes require congressional approval.
"If we can't have comprehensive immigration reform, we still have to do something to solve the problem: We have too many people here on false documents," said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, a trade group representing the Arizona and California farmers who grow roughly half the country's fresh fruits and vegetables. Of an agriculture-only bill, he said: "We're not yet talking about it, but that's certainly a possibility."
Traditionally, Democrats have resisted any efforts to pass bills for specific sectors independent of a broad overhaul. The disintegration of this year's push isn't likely to change their stance. They fear that one provision important to them—granting legal status to many of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants—would be left behind under a piecemeal approach.
"If you allow Republicans to cherry pick, they will leave the 11 million behind," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a Democrat involved in the House efforts. The AFL-CIO said Tuesday labor groups remained committed to ensuring all the pieces of a broad rewrite move together.
Even some Republicans who said they hoped to pass fixes easing problems for some industries said that seemed unlikely in the current political climate.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R., Fla.) said he would like to tweak the guest-worker program for citrus growers in his district, but he saw no indications that GOP leaders would want to take up the issue, particularly amid tensions over the influx of migrants at the southern border.
"I don't see it happening. It seems like if we don't do the full series of bills then we're not going to do any," he said.
Business groups warned that the failure of the legislation would compound problems plaguing many of the industries reliant upon immigrant workers.
With agricultural workers hard to find, some farmers growing labor-intensive fresh fruits and vegetables may switch to different commodities that rely less on human labor, said Mr. Nassif of Western Growers.
"We will find that the cost of produce is going to be going extremely high, because people will not be able to afford to grow them," he said.
The construction industry said, without an updated guest-worker program, labor shortages could develop.
The technology industry, which has lobbied for years to increase the number of visas for high-tech workers, may see a continued slow drain of jobs to other countries that would have been created in the U.S., said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, which represents high-skilled companies.
Dairy farmers already scrambling to find enough workers to handle the nearly 24-hour milking cycle may have to produce less milk or pass up opportunities to expand, Mr. Mulhern said.
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