From WatertownDailyTimes.com, Marc Heller, Times Washington Correspondent, 24 Apr 2011.
WASHINGTON — A new immigration policy in Utah that does not kick undocumented workers out of the country — but doesn’t offer them a path to citizenship, either — might change the debate in Congress about illegal immigration.
And lawmakers such as Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, could play a role in reshaping the conversation.
The Utah approach allows immigrants without documentation to remain in the state as guest workers as long as they are employed, but does not give them a chance to become citizens. It toughens enforcement by requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone charged with a felony or serious misdemeanor.
It was approved in the Utah state Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert.
That GOP-leaning endorsement suggests that the Utah solution might have bipartisan promise in Congress, said Mr. Owens, who highlighted the law in a recent speech to New York apple growers.
“It could be a good baseline,” Mr. Owens said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Since arriving in Congress in 2009, he has lamented lawmakers’ inability to break a logjam over amnesty, keeping thousands of farm workers in New York in limbo, and he said this might advance the issue.
“This is the first time I’ve seen something that would work,” Mr. Owens said he told apple farmers. Dairy farmers also are tracking the issue because immigrant labor has become common on farms across the north country.
How a congressional bill would be crafted remains to be seen. Some lawmakers refuse to let any of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers stay in the country; others insist that those already here should be given an opportunity to become U.S. citizens if they have a clean criminal record, are employed and pay a fine.
America’s Voice, a group that supports comprehensive immigration reform, sees little evidence that the Republican-led House is willing to do anything more than force out undocumented immigrants already here.
“At this point, Congress is basically paralyzed,” said America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry. “I wish I had some hope.”
But proponents also have a large, relatively new crop of lawmakers like Mr. Owens to lobby who have not established long track records on the issue and might be open to compromise, especially if they want to avoid losing support among the fastest-growing part of the electorate: Hispanics. Mr. Sharry said the Utah law might be a first step toward swinging the GOP’s stance back to the position held by former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that letting undocumented workers already here remain, working, is good for business.
Most lawmakers appear to agree that the current H2A guest worker program is burdensome. Established mainly for seasonal workers, it does not apply to dairy farms, where milking cows is a year-round affair.
“They have just made it a miserable program to go through,” Mr. Owens said. Legislation based on the Utah law would avoid having to rewrite the H2A program.
Just last week, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., touted her support for a revamping of the H2A program to make it more practical for dairy farmers. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has endorsed that approach, as have Mr. Owens and before him, former Rep. John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor. That measure would allow dairy workers to come to the United States for an initial three-year period, after which they could apply for permanent resident status.
“Our dairy farmers shouldn’t have to choose between their livelihoods and taking risks with a potential employee’s immigration status,” Mrs. Gillibrand said in a news release.