State Ag director pleads for immigration policy changes

State Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse illustrated the nation’s immigration dilemma Thursday by asking Rotary members to imagine themselves as illegal immigrants. Then he asked a question.

“Would you go back under the dark of night at great risk to yourself? I think you’d stay here living in the shadows,” Newhouse said. “It’s crazy to have people in this situation.”

Newhouse, a Sunnyside farmer and former state lawmaker who was appointed Agriculture director in 2009 by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire, said he’ s hopeful Congress will reach a solution this year. He said a broad coalition of employer, labor and faith-based groups lobbying for comprehensive reform is on the right track.

“I think the stars are lining up for something to happen soon,” he said in a speech to the Downtown Yakima Rotary Club.

The existing H-2A guest worker program, he said, is flat-out broken and should be scrapped. Even the name “H-2A” has negative connotations for employers and employees alike.

The program, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, has long been criticized as costly and cumbersome for employers while exploiting workers who have no freedom to move from job to job and often are blacklisted if they complain about working conditions.

In its place, Newhouse would like to see a program that allows agricultural laborers to enter the United States legally to work and return home when the season is finished.

“It’s my experience that not everyone wants citizenship. They want to return home to be with their families,” he said.

Hot-button issues like amnesty could derail reform. “What do you do with 11 million people?” he asked. But if border security is a pillar of a reform package, parties normally on opposite sides could compromise.

The local and state agricultural economies depend on a stable workforce, Newhouse said, recounting the 2011 labor shortage that left 3 percent of the apple crop unharvested at a cost of at least $40 million.

“It takes a lot of people to make our agricultural economy run,” he said.

And it’s been shown “time and again” that the domestic workforce doesn’t want to work in the fields, he said.

Newhouse said he hasn’t yet been asked to stay on as director under Gov. Jay Inslee, who still has a number of executive appointments to make. Newhouse wants the job, noting he’s eager to lead the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the agency this year.