In Texas, Nominal Political Allies Stand at Odds Over Immigration Reform

How generous should Washington, D.C. be in granting work-related visas? A largely conservative camp argues that immigrants displace American workers. In general, conservative mindsets will not favor a a standardized, government-sanctioned flow of foreign workers into the United States.

But the agriculture industry, a powerful constituency generally aligned with conservatism, resoundingly advocates for immigration reform. And that rural call is perhaps loudest in Texas.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Texas Farm Bureau, its local chapter, have repeatedly ventured to Capitol Hill this year to lobby for immigration reform. They call for legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, similar to a bill that passed the U.S. Senate in 2013. The agricultural sector has been full-throated in its support of what it perceives to be its interests, especially since the timing of the immigration debate coincides with an important debate over a new farm bill. Whether through price supports or through a guaranteed flow of immigrant farm workers, agricultural supporters are hoping to protect their farms.

“Let’s just cut to the chase on this thing: 85 percent of the agricultural labor that goes on in the state of Texas … is done by either undocumented or illegally documented people,” said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. “If and when that labor supply is not there, that production simply goes out of business.” Representatives for the Texas Farm Bureau are among the most avid supporters of immigration reform. 

However, if one considers the importance of the agricultural sector in the overall economy of Texas, the farm lobby’s stance acquires a more general appeal.

Agriculture’s importance to the Lone Star State’s economy is quite clear:

Texas ranks second in the nation for total agricultural receipts (behind California)
Texas is first in the nation for total livestock and livestock product receipts, which includes 20 percent of the nation’s beef cattle and its largest concentration of sheep
As the nation’s top producer of cotton, Texas accounts for 29 percent of U.S. cotton revenues
Texas is the third biggest producer of nursery and greenhouse products as well as a leading producer of various grains, fruits and nuts

The increasingly noticeable rift between the agricultural sector and conservative political figures has grown at home as well as in Washington. Indeed, all the leading candidates for statewide offices (including lieutenant governor and agriculture commissioner) have been have been diametrically opposed to the position on immigration reform supported by the Texas Farm Bureau.

“Let’s just put it this way,” Pringle said. “We are finding conservative Republicans less and less supportive of agriculture.”

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