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In Ag Commissioner Race, Immigration Pits GOP Against Farm Lobby

All of the major Republican candidates for Texas agriculture commissioner strongly oppose any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — a position that the agricultural lobby says would cripple the industry in Texas.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Republican candidates for Agriculture Commission (l-r): Tommy Merritt, J Allen Carnes, Eric Opiela and Sid Miller.

When Republican agriculture commissioner candidate Eric Opiela appeared on television sets across Texas recently to declare “No amnesty under any circumstances,” he was no doubt attempting to appeal to the conservative constituency that is expected to turn out in next week’s primary election.

So are his major primary opponents, former state Reps. Sid Miller and Tommy Merritt, and Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, who oppose any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Current Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor, is also blasting one of his Republican opponents, state Sen. Dan Patrick, over reports that he hired undocumented workers and supported amnesty for one of them decades ago.

But all of the candidates also happen to disagree with one of the country's most powerful agricultural lobbying groups, which boasts some half a million members in Texas. The American Farm Bureau Federation and its local arm, the Texas Farm Bureau, are strong supporters of a major immigration reform bill the U.S. Senate passed last year that offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill has been heavily criticized by many conservative politicians, both nationwide and in Texas, highlighting a rift between the Republican Party and the agricultural lobby that widened recently during debate over the farm bill.

“Let’s just cut to the chase on this thing: Eighty-five percent of the agricultural labor that goes on in the state of Texas … is done by either undocumented or illegally documented people,” said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. “If and when that labor supply is not there, that production simply goes out of business.”

Carnes and Merritt have downplayed their position on granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants, pointing out that it is a federal issue and that they’d rather focus on advocating for a viable guest worker program. Still, their positions reflect the candidates' need to appeal to Republican primary voters, Pringle said. The Farm Bureau has endorsed Carnes and given tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign.

Pringle said the Farm Bureau could “probably live with” the current proposal in the Republican-controlled U.S. House to allow undocumented immigrants to work toward legal status but not citizenship. But he has his own conservative take on why he opposes that approach: “Do you want a federal government large enough to be able to ship 12 million people back to their own country?"

Though the state’s agriculture commissioner cannot directly influence federal immigration policy, the debate raging in Congress has significant implications for agriculture in Texas, where producers struggle to find a legal workforce and studies have estimated that a vast majority of farm workers are undocumented.

The candidates say they expect to have the ear of Washington lawmakers on the issue. Staples has worked with agriculture commissioners in nearby states to try to influence guest worker proposals in Congress, and he has also made border security a centerpiece of his term and campaign.

But for some Republicans, a hard-line stance on immigration has sparked a backlash among rural voters. Agricultural producers across the country rebelled when U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, proposed forcing employers nationwide to use the controversial E-Verify database, a federal service that checks to see whether someone is eligible to work in the U.S. Farm lobby groups predicted tens of billions of dollars in losses for their members. Similar efforts in Texas have also failed.

“All we have to do to put agriculture out of business in this country, you do two things,” Pringle said. “No. 1, you implement E-Verify. And No. 2, you don’t provide any kind of legal opportunity for a workforce.”

Yet Opiela, an attorney for the state Republican Party, supports the use of E-Verify in Texas, and has criticized Carnes for testifying against such identification programs in Washington, D.C., in 2007. Carnes now says he supports “a program to track people when they come in the U.S. on a guest worker visa, and make sure they leave on time.”

Opiela added that while the use of programs like E-Verify would undoubtedly cause some Texas farmers and ranchers to lose employees, they would create "a level playing field." He also said Merritt and Miller are responsible for creating “magnets” for undocumented immigrants in Texas, pointing to a 2001 state law they both voted for that grants in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.

That law recently came back to haunt Gov. Rick Perry, who faced criticism in 2011 from his Republican presidential primary opponents over his support for the law.

For Pringle, the Republican Party's shift to the right in recent years means that the Texas farm lobby may be looking for friends in places that would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. In the 2012 election cycle, the Texas Farm Bureau donated $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“Let’s just put it this way,” Pringle said. “We are finding conservative Republicans less and less supportive of agriculture."

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