President Barack Obama laid out his plan Thursday night to provide relief to about 5 million people in the United States who have moved here without legal permission, most notably issuing an executive order allowing undocumented immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents to be granted legal status as well.
"All of us take offense to those who reap the rewards of living in America without embracing its responsibilities," he said. However, "undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows."
It was unclear what the changes would mean in Oregon. They were well received among political leaders, but the agricultural industry was less enthusiastic, arguing that the reforms failed on many counts.
Everyone agreed, however, that the responsibility lies with Congress to pass comprehensive reforms that will address all the problems related to American's undocumented immigrant population.
This has become an increasingly thorny issue in Oregon.
Migrant labor has become a cornerstone of the state's agricultural industry, and there are about 120,000 undocumented immigrants living here. It is one of a handful of states where the number of illegal immigrants has grown fastest over the past twenty years, and immigration policy is rising to the forefront of public discussion.
Jeff Stone, executive director for the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said the plan will do little to help the state's agricultural industry, and he said it does not make up for the missed opportunity for real reform in Congress.
"(Obama's proposal) is not a replacement for resolving the immigration problem that is facing the country," he said. "It promotes everybody's narrative, positive and negative, but it doesn't solve the problem."
Comprehensive reform would include a true guest-worker program that provides a steady, reliable workforce and a new visa system to allow people who have been here for years to gain legal status in a manageable way, Stone said.
He's not alone. Farm workers across the country will largely fall outside the scope of the proposed reforms, and the national agricultural industry is skeptical that anything short of a new set of laws will stabilize their workforce.
Estimates of how many people in the country illegally are working in agriculture vary, ranging from about 500,000 to as many as 1.75 million individuals.
Obama's proposal is expected to apply to about 250,000 of them, a tiny fraction.
"For what appears to be a small subset of current agricultural workers, the president's actions will alleviate some pressure in the short term but does not offer these workers, their families, their communities or their employers the long-term assurance they deserve," said Charles Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
Craig Regelbrugge of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform said his group never expected administrative action could provide a broad solution to the farmworker issue.
"We've seen an inexorable growth in food imports, including fruits and vegetables," Regelbrugge said. "Imports are displacing domestic production."
He said a combination of factors, including tighter border enforcement, have contributed to a worsening of the farm labor shortage.
"The workforce situation has gotten worse and worse and worse and worse," Regelbrugge said. "I think we would have had a disaster in California this year had we not had a drought disaster" that reduced crops.
For Stone, the situation in Oregon is similar. There are not enough workers and not enough certainty for the farmers.
Oregon lost one-third of its nursery growers during the recession, and it is just now building itself back up, Stone said. It relies on migrant workers, and there is a labor shortage under the current system. There are simply not enough people to work these jobs who can prove they're allowed to be here. The president's ideas don't solve that problem.
"There aren't enough visas for the work that needs to be done," Stone said. True immigration reform "is needed for the long-term survival of this country economically."
Some disagree with the idea that Obama's reforms are needed at all.
Jim Ludwick, former president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said he does not support the plan. It isn't needed, he said. Rather, the president ought to focus on enforcing the laws we already have.
He said Obama's speech was disingenuous, conflating facts and suggesting law-abiding citizens are frequently deported when they are not, Ludwick said. The speech was meant as a political maneuver, he said, and was designed to tug at heart strings and manipulate emotions rather than set policy.
"He knows all these things he put out will never come to fruition," Ludwick said.
Immigration policy has come increasingly to the forefront in Oregon. Two weeks ago, Oregon voters shot down a ballot measure that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to hold state-issued driver cards. The Oregon Legislature had already approved the law, but voters disagreed and defeated the proposal by an overwhelming margin.
Stone said it was a shame the law hadn't passed and would have benefited the agricultural industry a great deal, but Ludwick said it was a true referendum on what Oregonians really think about immigration policy.
Political leaders were clearly more in line with Stone than Ludwick on Obama's speech, as they had been on driver's cards last year.
"I applaud President Obama's announcement this evening. His leadership will help innumerable families across the country. In our state, his action will mean that thousands of Oregonians have the ability to safely pursue aspects of daily life that many of us take for granted," said Speaker of the House Tina Kotek.
Gov. John Kitzhaber offered his support as well and, like Stone, said the needed work is not done.
"As Oregonians, we believe in a fair shot for everyone... It remains to be seen whether Congress will step up, do what's right, and pass meaningful immigration reform, or whether it will continue to play politics with the lives of millions who have been living, working, and contributing to our communities for years."
Obama called on Congress to pass a comprehensive reform package, and he insisted the temporary measures he has proposed are in keeping with American values.
"We are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once too," he said. "What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will."
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