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OAKFIELD, N.Y. — Congress has been unable to make any progress on an immigration overhaul for years, but for voters such as dairy farmer Matt Lamb, the party that figures out a way forward will go a long way toward securing his vote. Lamb is a self-described conservative guy and a longtime Republican voter, but he’s considering casting his ballot for Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul and President Barack Obama because of what he calls his most important issue.
Lamb has more than 2,000 cows on his family farm that need to be milked three times a day, and he struggles to find the labor to do it. He puts ads in local papers but still is at pains to find adequate help. Lamb uses some foreign workers, but the current immigration system makes it almost impossible for him to get visas for potential new employees. And since the push for immigration changes during the George W. Bush administration, he’s seen the GOP move in what he thinks is the wrong direction on his key issue.
“Generally, agriculture votes Republican,” Lamb said in an interview earlier this month. “We traditionally have been [Republican] on this farm. But right now, being able to carry out our business is the single most important thing. I’m a single-issue voter: Where’s my labor going to come from?”
Voters like Lamb — in need of workers, tired of the stalemate in Washington, D.C. — could present an opening for Democrats. And that could be pivotal in close districts such as this one in Western New York.
It is heavily Republican, but Hochul is running a strong campaign against Republican Chris Collins in a race that Roll Call rates as a Tossup.
Whoever wins the White House could gain immense political capital for his party with the growing Latino population in the United States if he successfully pushes for an immigration overhaul, but experts on the issue put the onus on Congress to move the ball forward. And the outlook for that — from the specific issue of agricultural visas to the broader rejiggering of the nation’s immigration laws — is bleak.
“I have a hard time seeing comprehensive immigration reform go anywhere in the next four years unless Republicans in Congress take leadership on this issue,” said GOP strategist Ana Navarro, who served as an adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is deeply plugged-in on immigration issues.
She said Obama didn’t have the “chits” and hadn’t built the necessary relationships on Capitol Hill to have key Members in a GOP-controlled House risk political capital for him on immigration. Navarro said she doesn’t think a President Romney, facing re-election in 2016, would want “a battle with conservative Republicans” on the issue. That would leave a closely divided Senate and a Republican-controlled House to get the issue moving.
“The truth: Unless we see Congressional leaders step up to the plate to get immigration done, I don’t think either Obama or Romney will be able to advance big, bold comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.
And given the conservative tilt of the House, that might be a stretch.
House Republican leadership aides acknowledge privately that there is a legitimate willingness to tackle immigration at some point, especially given the growing importance of the Latino vote in presidential elections and the seemingly exponential growth of the Hispanic population.
Still, one leadership aide noted that while many think the conventional wisdom points toward an immigration reform vote in the 113th Congress, that might not happen. So much rides on the outcome of the elections and the will of the next Congress to tackle such a divisive issue.
Indeed, since 2007, when Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), then-Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and others spearheaded an attempt at an immigration reform bill, the issue has been nothing more than a political football.
Items such as the DREAM Act and an E-Verify bill have been blocked in Congress during the past few years as they proved either too controversial to move or were held back because they would be more useful as negotiating tools.
Talks broke down last month on a bill to grant visas to high-skilled immigrants even though both sides seemingly wanted to resolve the matter. In the end, the issue became little more than a political show vote, and the measure, the STEM Jobs Act, fell short of passing the House on a 257-158 vote under a suspension of the rules. Leading up to the vote, the White House had been urging K Street groups to oppose the bill and wait for a bipartisan version at another time.
A big question mark in the House will be the current freshman class, many of whom are poised to return to the 113th Congress.
“There’s more of an appetite for legal immigration reform,” a conservative freshman Republican Member of Congress said.
“There’s a huge opportunity there because it relates to job creation and it relates to competitiveness,” the Member said, noting the STEM Jobs bill. “When you get into the illegal side, a lot of us say: Demonstrate to us that you’re actually securing the border.”
“It’s safe to say that anything on comprehensive immigration reform right now is not in the cards whatsoever,” a Democratic Senate aide said, noting that if it couldn’t get done with a Republican White House late in the past decade, it’s going to be very hard with a Democratic White House — or even a Romney White House. “Democrats, as a general rule, they would be happy to do something on immigration, but they just don’t know that they have a partner in it on the other side,” the aide said.
Back in western New York, Lamb is still pondering whom he will vote for. And as someone who will be voting with a focus on immigration reform, he’s not alone, especially in the agricultural community.
“More and more dairy farms are hiring foreign labor, that’s the trend,” said Jaime Castaneda, a senior vice president at National Milk Producers Federation, which supports immigration reform with changes to allow more legal immigration and a path for unauthorized workers to get the ability to work within the law. “The majority of the milk being produced in the United States is produced by farms that have immigrant labor,” he said.
The current H-2A guest worker program does not apply to dairies because the program is for seasonal work and cows need to be milked year round. A bipartisan bill to make H-2A visas available to dairy farm workers has gone nowhere.
One Democratic aide noted that Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is almost certainly coming to the helm of the Judiciary Committee next year, a sign that bodes well for agricultural visa issues.
But the aide still sees limited potential in a Republican Conference that includes many staunch anti-immigration Members because any solution would have to deal with the status of current undocumented workers as well as prospective workers.
“Goodlatte probably cares a lot more about the agriculture issue and will try to get something done there,” the aide said. “Here’s the problem: They have come to define amnesty as anything that gives any undocumented person legal status.”
The standstill in Washington, D.C., leaves Lamb bearish about the months and years ahead.
“These past couple weeks we’ve taken the step of selling heifer calves — these calves are our future, they’re tomorrow’s milk,” he said.
“We’ve just got no confidence in the future of the labor,” Lamb continued with a touch of sadness. “If that gets solved, we’ll go back to building barns.”