Republicans Softening on Immigration?

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 12:46 PM EDT
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

For Republicans, immigration reform usually means "securing the border" now and doing everything else later. So it's news that two House Republicans are floating legislation that could begin to shift the conversation.

Immigration hardliner Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is planning to introduce a bill that modifies an existing guest-worker program, potentially bringing 500,000 foreign workers into the US legally; Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) has a similar bill in the works. Smith's measure modifies the current H-2A visa program used by many agricultural employers to bring workers into the US, creating a new classification called an H-2C (how, exactly, is unclear). Currently, farmers have to apply months in advance for these temporary visas. In a volatile industry like farming, where labor demands can be difficult to estimate, that's no small feat.

So why the change of heart from Smith? Here's the Wall Street Journal's Miriam Jordan:

Stepped-up lobbying by farm groups on the issue amounts to a frank admission about their dependence on a foreign-born work force—whether legal or not. Their argument is that most American workers have shunned farm jobs because many are of a seasonal, migratory nature as well as being physically arduous.

But concern is also rising for a wider swath of corporate America about the need for a more business-friendly rationalization of immigration policy. Other sectors like fast food, hotels and construction, which also employ low-skilled workers, have been subjected to federal enforcement actions that have resulted in the loss of employees who are in the country illegally. 

Will Smith and Lungren's proposals fix a broken system? Not likely. As the Journal points out, over 750,000 people are employed as field workers illegally each year. That's versus the 45,000 farm workers that come to the US on H-2A visas. Even legalizing half a million temporary workers wouldn't be enough to meet the current demand for farm labor.