Can new bill provide true immigration reform?

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Will a new bill in the House proposing immigration reform finally provide the tipping point to fulfill long-standing promises to reform an immigration system almost all parties agree is broken and desperately in need of repair?

Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the National Meat Association, isn’t sure. "I don’t really know how this bill differs from all the others that came before it," he told MEATPOULTRY.com. NMA, he said, is "pro-reform. What we’re trying to do is work with government to make it possible for a more functional system to come together."

H.R. 4321, submitted earlier this month by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), along with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, proposes reform in several areas: detention, especially of families; access to legal representation; and medical care for immigrants, among other points. The bill, formally titled the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, or CIR ASAP, would also suspend the Dept. of Homeland Security’s controversial "Operation Streamline" program and would repeal the 287(g) program that deputizes local law enforcement for immigration duty.

The Gutierrez legislation has received strong support from the United Food and Commercial Workers, the chief union representing organized workforces in the meat and poultry industry. "This legislation charts a new course for our country. A course that protects workers, respects families and reflects our nation’s interests and our better instincts," UFCW president Joe Hanson stated in prepared remarks. "It upholds our values as a nation of immigrants and embraces the vitality and diversity that are the fabric of a vibrant and strong society. The UFCW applauds Congressman Gutierrez and his colleagues for offering real solutions to address this important issue, and we look forward to working with him to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality."

The American Civil Liberties Union also generally supports the bill, citing its reforms as steps that would "rectify some of the egregious immigration practices set in place since 1996." But the ACLU also complains that CIR ASAP includes "includes invasive electronic employment verification which, if implemented, would require employers to use error-filled government databases to confirm work authorization for every American."

According to Christopher Calabrese, the ACLU’s policy legislative counsel, "Errors in electronic employment verification are significant barriers to employment and violate the rights of innocent workers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also estimates they will cost employers and society billions. In this current economic climate, the last thing we need is higher business costs or another hurdle standing between a worker and a job. While we support the efforts of leaders in the House and Senate to bring real reforms to the immigration system, Americans should not be expected to trade away their privacy rights as payment for these reforms."

NMA’s Russell said that his association’s members have grown wary of government attempts to enact meaningful reform of an issue as complex as immigration even as the meat industry continues to depend on workers from outside the country, who at some plants comprise the majority of the workforce. "What we’ve been working on is an effort to get some best practices in place, to inform companies about what’s the right thing to do," he said. "That’s what they want to know the most: what’s the right thing to do? It’s pretty murky in a lot of areas."

He also commented that support of immigration from the political left is in some ways irrelevant "because this is an issue that politically puts region against region rather than the left against the right. It’s such a big issue, and it’s so divisive."

He said that since the headline-making raids on the Agriprocessors plant in Iowa, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has taken a somewhat lower profile. "Rather than raids, what we’re seeing is more I-9 audits from ICE. Raids have a lot of negative consequences," he added, "especially for families, and that may be causing some hesitancy now."

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