Art Cullen

Taking On Immigration

President Barack Obama has surprised many by staying true to his campaign promises: moving to close down Guantanamo Bay prison, reducing troop levels in Iraq, shifting resources to Afghanistan, pushing tax cuts for the middle class, reforming health care, ramping up clean energy programs—all the while trying to steer the economy out of recession.

On April 9 his administration made clear it will push another campaign pledge: immigration reform.

Latinos turned out in droves to vote for Obama based on his pledge to make legal status possible for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living and working in the United States. His proposal is similar to a bipartisan bill, strongly supported by the Bush administration, that passed the Senate but failed to clear the House.

The administration plans to get legislation moving by this May. Members of Congress are understandably skittish about the tricky politics of immigration, especially during a time when jobs are scarce. They worry it could weigh down his domestic agenda, particularly health care.

“I know this is an emotional issue; I know it’s a controversial issue,” Obama said during a March town hall meeting in California. “I know people get real riled up politically about this.”

Yet, he said, immigrants who have lived here for a long time and lived quiet lives working hard “have to have some mechanism over time to get out of the shadows.”

His proposal would require illegal immigrants to pay a fine and get on a path to citizenship here. It also would seek to reduce further illegal immigration with stronger border enforcement and by cracking down on employers who hire illegal aliens.

The illegal immigrants who are in the Midwest were lured by unskilled jobs, largely in meatpacking, that went unfilled. Our newspaper routinely carries stories about workers who have been caught with phony IDs after living here for years and not causing any other trouble.

President Bush did not have the political capital to bring reluctant Republicans with him on immigration reform. It remains to be seen whether Obama can muster majorities in a Democratic-controlled Congress before the 2010 election. He shows political courage by trying, and by staying true to his promises.

Reforming farm subsidies

An effort to cap farm subsidy payments ran smack dab into a wall of special-interest group opposition and died in mid-April in the Senate Budget Committee. The episode shows some of the naïveté of the new Obama administration and how difficult it is to reform any government program that has piled up hubris over the years.

The Obama proposal would have forbid subsidies to farms with more than $500,000 in gross income. That would knock out a lot of small- and medium-size farms. Rather than trying to amend the legislation, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-ND, just sat on it.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, does not intend to give up. He will introduce legislation later this session to cap payments on those families with $250,000 in net income. He will find support from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, but powerful Southern interests representing mega-farms will fight that tooth-and-nail.

Farming operations need a government safety net to protect against the vagaries of weather and market speculators. Continuing to direct payments to parties that do not farm but have crop histories, or to operations that do not need them, in the long run will erode public support for necessary income protection programs.

The existing subsidy structure rewards farm consolidation into ever-larger units and pays for production over conservation. The administration will do well by letting the likes of Grassley and Harkin take the lead in pushing for practical reforms that will serve the long-term interests of a diversified ag sector.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa, where this originally appeared. email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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