The 2012 election is over and, although nothing much has changed in Washington, there is a glimmer of hope Congress will finally address a constant problem: immigration reform.
It's been over 25 years since the last attempt at major immigration reform with the 1986 Immigration and Customs Reform Act (ICRA). Among its many provisions, the IRCA established guest-worker programs for agriculture and service-industry employers and also established the Form I9 documentation process.
Setting aside Congress's failure to pass serious immigration reform since 1986, the programs and benchmarks established then have become a bureaucratic maze which is nearly impossible to depend on and absolutely impossible with which to fully comply.
For example, under current federal law, employers have two primary guest-worker programs legally available to them: the H2A (agricultural labor) and the H2B (service industry, non-agriculture labor). But these programs fail miserably to meet the actual labor needs of employers and are not designed to ebb and flow with seasonal demands. In fact, the current H2A program provides less than 2 percent of the total employees for either seasonal or long-term agricultural labor.
Following Sept. 11, 2001, our national security interests forced Congress to debate the security of our borders and the identification of individuals not authorized to be in this country. As a result, great importance was placed on stopping the flow of people across our border and, in particular, our southern border. Congress worked on fast-tracking a border fence and increasing the number of Border Patrol agents.
Simultaneously, Congress moved full steam ahead with a pilot program to "help" employers authorize their employees. The electronic employment verification system (E-Verify) has the potential to be a critical tool in employers' toolbox. However, there are still serious limitations to solve before E-Verify actually functions as it should. While many believe the country's immigration issue would simply go away by mandating all employers to implement E-Verify, this cannot be accomplished without also reforming federal guest-worker programs to meet the labor needs of our employers.
As a result of the myriad issues facing employers, Congress did attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2005 and 2007; both attempts failed miserably. Given the political dynamic and the continued inaction of Congress, several states have been emboldened to pass their own immigration laws. While these state-specific laws are well-intended, they have created an even further divide within the country and have unfairly placed employers squarely in the crosshairs of a battle between the states and Congress.
Congress can ill afford to kick the can down the road yet again. As our country's economy sputters along, employers need certainty in order to grow their business. Democrats and Republicans must forgo any rhetoric, roll up their sleeves and hammer out immigration reform which secures our borders, provides a functional guest-worker program and addresses those individuals who are undocumented yet already in this country.