For more than 50 years, since the nullification of the Bracero Treaty and left-unprotected U.S. border, the issue of illegal immigration has vexed our democracy. If there is one thing worse than the byzantine immigration system left in its wake, it’s the unending blame game from the very people charged with providing sound immigration policy: Congress.
On one side are the hardliners more than willing to cast the first stone at the illegal immigrant, yet completely unwilling to see their own neglect of leaving a border wide open to a poverty-stricken nation for so many years. On the other side of the aisle are the power-hungry politicians who hide behind the façade of compassion while taking votes from anyone, legal or not, to broaden their political base.
Employers are blamed for hiring illegal immigrants but by law are not allowed to question their documentation, which places these employers in the crosshairs of conflicting federal and state laws. Wayward city leaders are blamed for protecting hard-working mothers and fathers and their children who seek to stay in America. Legal and illegal families believe they have nowhere to turn, and border security guards are forced to separate children from parents as they cross the open border with Mexico.
The best response Congress can muster is half-baked, sound-bite solutions such as, “Build a wall,” “Give them citizenship,” “Finance the Dreamers,” “Legalize the Dreamers,” “Make them touchback,” or “Send them all back.”
Because of our immigration woes, no sector has been left more vulnerable than American agriculture. On Aug. 4, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement with Mexico (better known as the Bracero Treaty). Because of a number of administrative problems, all of which are surmountable today, that agreement was nullified in 1964. For many years after, migrant workers continued crossing the border to harvest crops as they ripened; generally, workers returned to Mexico when the growing season ended. As border enforcement increased over the years, so did the dangers and expense of returning to Mexico, so many of those workers stayed in the United States for the work.
The end of the Bracero Treaty and a wide open border created the problems of illegal immigration that we see today. It also marked a shift of foreign agricultural labor policy from the executive branch to the legislative branch of government, where little has been accomplished. Proponents of the latest attempt at immigration reform, the Goodlatte bill, assure us that there will be no interruption of labor and that our nation’s domestic food supply will be protected.
This assurance comes from the same group that thinks prisoners or welfare recipients or American citizens should be dispatched to the fields to harvest crops during the short window of ripeness. No farmer in his right mind should trust a politician who thinks American citizens will show up on the farm ready to work when the harvest begins. Legal American citizens haven’t harvested crops since the family left the family farm.
The blame for inaction on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, sanctuary cities, the separation of families at the border, and the growing undocumented immigrant population rests squarely on the shoulders of Congress. On the issue of illegal immigration, Congress has been weighed and found wanting. It has failed our country, and it is time for an intervention.
The problem of illegal immigration began with poor management of a foreign agriculture workforce and the president of the United States, not Congress, can begin to end it there as well. Through a diplomatic agreement such as a treaty, trade or executive agreement, the president could negotiate an agreement with Mexico (and other countries) to implement a foreign worker program and allow employed foreign workers to remain in the country. No vote is required for a trade or executive agreement; the president can bypass Congress. A treaty or trade agreement, synchronized with the passage of border protection and an electronic employment verification system (E-verify), would end illegal immigration.
American voters have been clear. They want an end to this problem, but in a responsible manner. If the president is willing to intervene, he can place a call to Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and succeed where Congress has failed. Then, maybe, we can begin to heal our divided nation.
George Radanovich is a former Republican U.S. representative for California’s 19th District, serving from 1995 to 2011. He is president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, a voluntary, nonprofit agricultural trade association.