By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- As President Barack Obama prepares to address the nation Thursday evening on his executive action on immigration reform, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said it is the family unification program that will help farm workers find relief from deportation.
Vilsack told DTN the main problem is that "the immigration system is broken," and that while the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill "over 500 days ago," the House has failed to act.
Like President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, Obama will act when Congress did not, Vilsack said.
"There is clear legal precedent for what the president is going to do," Vilsack said, because "it will focus on family unification."
Immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years and have a child who is an American citizen will be able to apply for work authorizations and not have a fear of being deported, Vilsack said.
He said the policy will be "very consistent" with Obama's policy on the "dreamers," students who are in the United States without legal papers but have been allowed to stay.
"When you do this, you essentially open up the opportunity to a wide range of people who are already working in the American economy," Vilsack said.
The executive order will create "a bit more stability in the agricultural work force," Vilsack said, but "what will provide ultimate stability" is for Congress to pass immigration reform.
United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said Wednesday that Obama told him the executive order will allow 250,000 farm workers to stop fearing deportation, but Vilsack said that "This is obviously an estimate."
Rodriguez said in a news release Thursday that the UFW will hold celebratory watch parties in eight West Coast cities beginning at 4:30 p.m. PST. (Obama's speech is scheduled at 7 p.m. CST)
Western Growers President Tom Nassif said his group could not predict the potential impact of the executive order, but urged Congress to be cautious in its action and to pass an immigration reform bill.
"We cannot yet assess the full impact of the president's actions on agriculture, but we know this: Congress must reassert its constitutional authority to make laws and pass immigration reform legislation critical to the needs of our industry and the nation," Nassif said in a news release.
"Some in Congress will argue that the president's action must be met with a legislative response to block bad policies, but preventing the implementation of executive actions alone is not enough," he said.
"These actions by the president should also serve as a catalyst for Congress to lead by passing meaningful immigration reform legislation."
Chuck Conner, a former Agriculture deputy secretary who now is president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, agreed it would be best for Congress to act, but showed less enthusiasm for the impact of the expected executive order.
"While the exact impact that the president's executive order on immigration will have on agriculture remains to be seen, the fact remains that legislation is needed to provide a durable solution to the labor shortages being experienced by farmers, ranchers and growers," Conner said.
"For what appears to be a small subset of current agricultural workers, the president's actions will alleviate some pressure in the short term but does not offer these workers, their families, their communities or their employers the long term assurance they deserve. To mix metaphors, we as a country should not bring people out of the shadows only to let them twist in the wind," Conner added.
"To meet future agricultural labor needs, the H-2A program remains broken beyond repair and a new, streamlined and market-based visa program is needed," he said. "Both of these goals -- certainty for current workers and a working visa program for the future -- can only be achieved through congressional action.
"Throughout the immigration reform debate over the past two years, NCFC has tried to embody the spirit of cooperation and consensus building that is needed to find a practical, common sense solution to this seemingly intractable problem," Conner noted.
"Over the next few weeks, these virtues will likely be in short supply on both sides of the partisan divide," he said.
"A debate over the process used to enact these immigration changes, even when loud and emotion-filled, will ultimately be healthy for our democracy. But when that debate is over, America's farmers still face an unprecedented labor crisis.
"We hope that the start of the 114th Congress gives policy makers the chance to turn the page on this issue and we urge all of them -- Republican and Democrat, Congress and the administration -- to find a way to come together and work collaboratively to address agricultural immigration reform."