Leahy On The Borderline In Immigration Debate
On a map, the nation's borders are innocuous lines of ink. But for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., they're an increasingly precarious tightrope.
As chairman of his chamber's Judiciary Committee, he faces angry Arizonans who want the federal government to back their headline-grabbing efforts to bar illegal immigrants. But as the senior member of Vermont's congressional delegation, he's hearing from dairy farmers desperate to retain an estimated 1,500 hired hands from Mexico, and from truckers and travelers demanding simpler crossings into Canada.
How to balance all the questions about immigration?
"Ultimately we need a comprehensive reform bill," Leahy says, "but you're going to need both Democrats and Republicans to come together for any chance."
The senator understands that improbability. And so, while preparing to lead this month's confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, he's also pushing several proposals to help the state. But with Americans focused on their southern border, can northern farmhand visas and trouble-free trips to Quebec win approval?
Leahy is a lead sponsor of the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (or AgJOBS Act), which would help Vermont's 1,000 dairy farms keep employing the foreign workers who, officials say, assist with as much as half of the state's $2 billion in annual milk sales.
Foreign workers who pick produce or tend sheep and goats can apply for long-term federal H-2A visas, but peers who care for cows aren't
eligible. As a result, a growing number of dairy farmers - finding only foreigners applying for grueling milking jobs - are hiring them knowing employer and employee risk arrest or deportation.
Leahy says the AgJOBS Act would let the dairy industry benefit from the same long-term visas supporting other agricultural sectors - a possible lifesaver not only to Vermont, where the top agriculture official has said 200 dairy farms could fail this year, but also to migrants whose need to hide can threaten their health and safety.
The senator recalls how he and his wife, a registered nurse, drove past one farm worker who appeared hurt. As they turned around to check, the man disappeared.
"I worry about these people. What happens if somebody has a serious illness and is afraid to seek help?" the senator says. "There's got to be a way to allow people who are working hard in the shadows to leave or receive a path toward citizenship."
In a related vein, Leahy also supports the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow foreigners to join their same-sex U.S. partners.
"We can't have millions who are treated as subhuman," he says, "but we also need ways to say if you play by the rules, you'll be rewarded."
Farmhands are just part of Vermont's immigration puzzle. Leahy's office is receiving a rising number of calls from Canada-bound constituents upset with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's clampdown along the northern border.
The federal government, for example, for months had threatened to seize a chunk of a Franklin farm to replace the small Morses Line border station - one of 15 between Vermont and Quebec - with a new multimillion-dollar facility.
At first, only the Rainville family that operates the farm noticed when customs officials unveiled plans to take a meadow that yields 1,000 hay bales a year and instead plant on it a two-story building with covered parking, a fitness center and helicopter landing space.
The third-generation farm family, learning that the current station records only two or three vehicles an hour, rejected the government's offer. The Rainvilles instead suggested closing the crossing, noting it's just five miles east of the Interstate 89 facility in Highgate Springs.
Soon reporters were spreading the David and Goliath story, prompting the government to reduce its land request from 10 acres to 4.9 acres to 2.2 acres. Leahy used a recent Judiciary Committee hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to secure a pledge for a Vermont meeting on the issue. After 150 people who attended heard unanimous opposition to the plan, the senator requested the station's closure.
"This is a friendly country, and there may be some unfriendly people that come into the country, but it is a balancing act," Leahy told Napolitano. "It is creating the animosity between our residents and the federal government that we don't need to have."
Thursday, federal officials agreed, saying they'll shut rather than upgrade the Morses Line station.
Morses Line isn't the only Vermont border-crossing saga in the spotlight.
Derby Line pharmacist Roland "Buzzy" Roy has made news protesting the fact that he no longer can walk up a small back street to buy a pizza in neighboring Quebec. Pushing authorities to the point they restrained him with handcuffs and a $500 fine, the 67-year-old recently appeared on National Public Radio alongside neighbors wearing "Free Buzzy Roy" buttons.
On a more serious note, an increasing number of Haitians has tried to sneak into Vermont illegally - at least 150 since January's earthquake, say federal authorities - in the wake of a federal order that all undocumented Haitians here before the disaster can stay for 18 months.
"I hear about all of those things," Leahy says, "but I hear the most from our businesses - how do we move people and goods across the border? It can impact thousands and thousands of jobs in Vermont."
Immigration issues can create work, too. Leahy has used his stature as the third most senior senator to locate several Homeland Security offices in his state. Of the 4,500 federal employees working in Vermont, about half work on business tied to the border:
? In St. Albans, more than 1,000 people process applications at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Center (one of four in the nation, with similar sites in California, Nebraska and Texas).
? In Williston, 325 are helping investigate foreign-born suspects and fugitives at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Law Enforcement Support Center (which plans on hiring an additional 85 for what's the sole such office in the nation).
? And in Burlington, 150 are dealing with accounting at the Department of Homeland Security's Finance Center.
A recent story in the conservative magazine The American Spectator, reporting on Arizona's new immigration law, noted of one federal enforcement hotline: "The number is 1-866-DHS-2-ICE and is located in Vermont of all places."
The author, it seems, had yet to learn of Leahy's connections.
Nationally, Leahy has plenty of critics. Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, is vocal in his desire for more border enforcement and less sympathy for foreign workers.
"We've got approximately 8 million people who are illegally in the country working today, and we have a substantial amount of unemployment," Sessions told Napolitano in the same hearing where Leahy spoke of Morses Line.
In Vermont, however, it's difficult to find outspoken opponents to the idea of helping dairy farmers and Canada-bound drivers.
The Vermont Farm Bureau has ranked immigration as one of its four legislative policy priorities this year - "We urge Congress to simplify visa procedures for farm workers," it says in a statement - and boasts support from Leahy's congressional colleagues, Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, and from Republican Gov. James Douglas.
"There's a pretty broad consensus in the state on how we should handle immigration," says the governor's spokesman, David Coriell.
Pomfret businessman Len Britton, a Republican who hopes to run against Leahy this fall, supports a farm guest-worker program and the town of Franklin's fight against the Morses Line plan.
"My family's farm was taken by eminent domain for the construction of Interstate 91 - thus I understand fully the emotions and life changes created when the U.S. government seizes ownership of personal property," says Britton, a ninth-generation native. "Simply put, this plan does not pass the Vermont common-sense test."
But it's another story across much of the country. At least 18 states are considering their own versions of Arizona's immigration law. That's why Leahy doesn't see any quick fixes.
"We have several people in my office who work on nothing but immigration matters. These are major, constant issues," the senator says. "When you have millions of people in this country illegally, but many with children who are born here and thus American citizens, what are you going to do? Do we want to stop drug smuggling? Sure. But we also need to stop demand for drugs in this country."
Immigration, he knows, still sparks more questions than answers.
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