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"Come Forward" Policies May Be Put to Test With Federal Immigration Shift

Immigration advocates say how the government treats illegal immigrants who come forward after last week’s federal policy shift will provide a test for other reforms — including those championed by some Texas Republicans.

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Immigrants’ rights advocates searching for a litmus test to help assess the risks of "come forward" policies being championed by some Texas Republicans may have found one in President Obama’s decision to grant deferred action to some illegal immigrant youths.

On Friday the president announced that the Department of Homeland Security would begin issuing work permits and grant relief from deportation to certain illegal immigrants brought to the country before they were 16 years old, a process referred to as deferred action.

The announcement came after Texas Republicans made what some called an unprecedented move this month when they adopted a platform calling for a national guest-worker program at their biennial convention. The platform also states that mass deportation of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country is neither “equitable nor practical.”

Days later, the Southern Association of State Departments and Agriculture adopted a separate platform — authored by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — that calls for “immediate immigration structure reform,” including a national guest-worker program. The platform for the association, a trade group made up of leaders from 15 southern states and territories, also calls for stricter border enforcement.

Neither platform serves as legislation, but instead as a nonbinding collection of ideas.

Staples’ proposal for a national guest-worker program, which he makes clear is not amnesty but instead a way to address the demand for agricultural workers, calls for an overhaul of the current visa system, which offers temporary status for immigrant workers in the form of an H2A visa, which requires that employers show there are not enough U.S. workers who are “able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.” Illegal immigrants would also be asked to “come forward and pay a just fine.”

But illegal immigrants have been skeptical of “come forward” policy shifts and view them as little more than an effort to snare a large number of illegal immigrants.

Jose “Chito” Vela III, the former general counsel for former U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz. Jr., D-Corpus Christi, and an immigration lawyer and member of the board of directors for the Workers Defense Project, said Staples and the Texas GOP are on their way to realizing the country needs immigrant labor. He said the platform shifts are welcome and that a guest-worker program could become a reality if the federal government proves it won’t deport immigrants who admit to breaking the law.

“I think we are about to have a trial run with the DREAMers,” he said, referring to Obama’s announcement.“Everyone is throwing around numbers right now; it could be 800,000, it could be a million [who are affected].”  Whether immigrants eligible for deferred action come forward — and how they are treated if they do — could affect other reform movements, including a guest-worker program.

Vela said illegal immigrants have reason to keep a close eye on how new initiatives are implemented. He points to last year’s announcement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was to begin using prosecutorial discretion when determining which illegal immigrants to place into deportation proceedings. It gave some hope to illegal immigrants and their family members initially, but results haven't been what they expected.

Since November, when the federal government said it would begin reviewing the 300,000 cases pending before immigration judges to see which should be dismissed, about 288,000 have been reviewed and only about 7 percent have been found eligible for closure, according to the Immigration Policy Center.

The silver lining, Vela said, is that illegal immigrants now have a growing network of advocates looking out for some of their best interests that will watch how any guest-worker program is implemented.

“Everybody acknowledges that they broke the law, even their advocates acknowledge that and there isn’t any question really,” he said. “The question is what’s the penalty going to be? Is it deportation, jail or a fine? And a fine for someone that’s been living here productively, has been employed and not had any serious criminal violations, I see as a fair way to resolve that situation.”

Staples’ office said the problem with the current agriculture worker visa is “too much red tape” that bogs down the process. But Erik Nicholson, a national vice president with the United Farm Workers, said guest-worker programs are often rife with layers that open up the door for exploitation.

“If you look at the history of the guest-worker program or programs in the United States, they are some of the most exploitative anti-worker, anti-human programs on the books,” he said. And immigrant status can keep workers from speaking out.

“[What] makes those programs so ripe for exploitation is that the workers’ ability to remain legally is predicated entirely on the good will of one and only one employer,” he said. “So what history has shown is that when workers do speak out, workers are fired, they are blacklisted and then subject to deportation.”

Nicholson agrees that something should be done for laborers who are in the country illegally and work to provide domestic growers their product, but he said the current system is the reason they are here in the first place.

“Agricultural work, due in large part because of the conditions and low pay and benefits, is work that people who are born in this country won’t do,” he said. “And so rather than improving the benefits and wages to a point that will attract U.S.-born workers, we depend on immigrants to do this work and that has been our legacy for the past 100-plus years.”

When asked to select as the best option between fixing the current H2A visa, making agriculture jobs more attractive for U.S. workers or granting legal status for workers in the country illegally, Nicholson said it didn’t boil down to one simple fix.

“I would suggest thinking about this: When you sit down for your evening dinner and are serving your children a plate of food, who do you want to be the people who have harvested that food for your children?” he said.

“Do you want them to be people that may have been trafficked or enslaved? Do you want them to be people who cannot earn to put enough food on their own tables? Or do you want them to be people who are open and vibrant members of our community who earn a fair wage, that are proud of the work they do and get out there and produce a quality, safe product?”

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