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Missing Larry

Craig's ouster leaves gap in immigration debate

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When the nativist hissing sounds start at the back of the room, most politicians run.

One hint of a question about "amnesty" and the instinct is to either play to the crowd or move on to a question about Social Security or the U.S. Postal Service.

But at a recent forum on immigration, when someone aggressively broached the subject of putting welfare recipients to work in the fields, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig stepped up to the mike, armed with facts and figures.

That's according to Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government affairs at the American Nursery and Landscape Association, a group that has worked for more than a decade for reasonable immigration reform in the agricultural sector.

Regelbrugge said Craig defused the room by citing the number of people taken off the welfare rolls during the Clinton administration and then arguing that there is no evidence that transitioning welfare recipients to field work makes sense or would fill the dire need within American agriculture.

"He's taken the principled stand and defended it," Regelbrugge said.

It's not a stand that Craig, a career conservative Republican now scrambling to clear his name after a June sex sting arrest, came to easily. Craig developed his nuanced position in support of immigration reform in recent years, based on discussions with growers that began in about 1999.

Any Idaho Republican appointed to replace him will have a steep learning curve and be more apt to go with the party line (or the AM radio line): border security and enforcement, rather than "comprehensive" immigration reform.

After a large immigrant legalization program passed Congress in 1986, many ag workers who earned green cards quickly moved out of the fields and into other sectors. By the mid-1990s, the number of undocumented workers in agriculture was again on the rise, Regelbrugge explained.

In 1998, more than half of the agricultural workers across the nation reported that they did not have a U.S. work permit.

American farmers went to a hostile Congress to try to get more temporary guest-worker visas. They were opposed by immigrant-rights groups, organized labor, Democrats and a wedge group of xenophobic Republicans.

"Over time, you had the emergence of a sense that you cannot solve this problem from the more extreme position in either party," Regelbrugge said.

Some time around 1999, Idaho growers went to Craig and told him that Idaho's labor-intensive crop and livestock industries needed more workers.

National producer groups had been talking to the United Farm Workers union and to other immigrant and labor groups for several years. It took Craig a few more years before he started listening to that growing coalition as well. The first version of his AgJobs bill, the agricultural guest-worker program that Craig has crafted and ushered into Congress several times, was first going to be introduced in 2001, without input from labor groups.

Then the World Trade Center fell, and any talk of immigration reform was derailed, said Craig spokesman Sid Smith.

"It was a bad climate for major immigration reform," Smith said. "That put AgJobs on the back burner."

But it also gave groups like the Idaho Migrant Council, now called the Community Council of Idaho, a chance to weigh in.

"For years, I would have opposed a guest-worker program," said Sam Byrd, an Idaho-based immigrant advocate.

Immigrant advocates have long been suspicious of guest-worker programs designed by growers with a tendency to exploit workers and then send them home. They did not want an immigration program to be used to depress wages for workers, either.

But Byrd and others worked with Craig for the last three years, hashing out a program with adequate worker protections.

"Craig is a big part of this," Byrd said. "I take my hat off to him—he has done a complete about-face."

Byrd said that groups like the Migrant Council and farmers had found common ground between the need for field labor and the need to protect workers' rights and wages. The first version of Craig's AgJobs bill would have skirted those agreements in favor of farmers.

Even the United Farm Workers union and groups like the Idaho Community Action Network—organizations that opposed the recent round of immigration reforms because they did not offer a large enough amnesty—now back AgJobs.

AgJobs was one component of the larger Senate immigration package that was derailed earlier this year. Farm, labor and immigrant groups are all pushing to have the bill introduced on its own this year. California Sen. Diane Feinstein is a co-sponsor, but Craig was a strong conservative advocate for the bill, and his loss is a challenge for supporters.

Craig said he is looking for other senators to carry his bills, assuming he resigns. Several names have been floated to replace Craig, but most do not have huge records on immigration with which to judge.

Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, an early prospect for a replacement, has had a few public actions that do not bode well for immigrants. During his brief tenure as interim governor last year, Risch decreed that state offices purge their ranks of unauthorized immigrant workers using a dysfunctional federal database. The executive order even pointed government offices to the wrong database to use. This largely symbolic gesture came during the height of tensions over immigration reform in Washington and was seen by immigrant advocates as a reactionary move.

A few years prior, Risch reacted harshly to a student group that staged a sit-in in the Idaho Senate on behalf of a farm worker minimum-wage bill. The bill ultimately passed the Legislature.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a former Canyon County prosecutor, is seen as more approachable on immigration issues. One of his deputy attorneys general defended the office's publication of Spanish-language materials earlier this year as the Idaho Legislature proceeded to make English the state's official language.

State Sen. John McGee, another potential appointee, was a co-sponsor of the English language bill.

Idaho-based anti-immigration activist Robert Vasquez, who planned to run for Craig's Senate seat next year, said that none of the people Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is considering for the appointment will go far enough in combatting illegal immigration.

"If anyone but me is appointed to Larry Craig's seat, there will be absolutely no change in the status quo vis a vis the illegal aliens in America and Idaho," Vasquez told me in an e-mail.

But whomever Gov. Otter appoints to fill Craig's shoes will not have the clout that Craig had, nor the cojones he has displayed of late on the issue.

First published on September 15 at NewWest.Net/Boise, http://www.newwest.net/Boise