Time ripe for sweeping immigration reform

October 9, 2013 

With Washington locked in bitter battles over the federal budget, debt ceiling and government shutdown, another major issue looms. Immigration reform, once a pivotal policy point for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, returns to the national stage this week with tens of thousands of supporters holding a rally at the National Mall on Tuesday. Powerful business leaders are quietly lobbying House Republicans to hold a vote on an overhaul of immigration law.

This is especially important to Manatee County where the agricultural industry struggles to find enough workers to harvest crops.

Peak picking season is only a month away, and farmers are scaling back operations to minimize losses -- estimated at 10 percent to 25 percent.

Fewer vegetables and fruits will be picked and headed to markets, though with little impact on consumer prices.

Seasonal migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, are not returning in large numbers as in the past, and Americans have shunned the physically demanding labor. Agriculture is one of Manatee County's economic mainstays alongside tourism. The worker shortage is acute in other states as well, and Congress should treat this issue with urgency.

A guest worker program that allows foreigners to legally enter the United States for certain vital jobs is essential.

Our region's member of Congress, Rep. Vern Buchanan, supports a workable and reliable guest worker program to serve American farmers. We urge him to take a leading role on this issue.

We do not advocate anything resembling amnesty, but the challenging and lengthy path to citizenship that Rubio championed in the Senate's passage of his reform bill should be on the table. Buchanan, a Longboat Key Republican, also opposes amnesty.

The business community, led by such notables as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have organized to target lawmakers from Southern states -- Florida being one -- and push for a comprehensive overhaul of the system. A high-profile summit of hundreds of business leaders on Oct. 28 in Washington, D.C. should provide additional impetus for revamping immigration laws.

House Republicans could score political points by adopting reform, setting the stage for next year's elections with ground-breaking legislation that appeals to Hispanic voters.

The GOP has alienated this growing voting bloc in the past with harsh rhetoric on immigration.

Equally pragmatic, though, is the prospect that President Obama would fill the void through an executive order, thus seizing a political advantage with Hispanics.

In a commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Rubio stated that GOP failure to pass reform "would leave the issue entirely in the hands of President Obama," though the White House rejects the idea of an executive order.

Regardless, Congress should be focused on the business community's concern about the economic consequences of the status quo. Get back to work and solve the problem.

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