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President Barack Obama meets with Speaker of the House John Boehner in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington Feb. 25,  2014. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque) President Barack Obama meets with Speaker of the House John Boehner in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington Feb. 25, 2014. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)  

Boehner promises to push for immigration changes

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

House Speaker John Boehner told agriculture businesses in his home district that he’s pushing for a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws, despite opposition and skepticism among some swing voters and GOP supporters.

“I’m still working with the President, working with my colleagues in a bipartisan way, and the Congress to move this issue along,” Boehner said in his annual outreach to agriculture leaders, dubbed the “Farm Forum,” held Saturday in Ohio.

Boehner indirectly acknowledged the unpopularity of his push for more immigrant workers. “I know it’s going to be hard that’s why it’s still hanging around,” he said.

“For the last 15 months I’ve been trying to move the ball down the field, only to be tackled by people that just don’t want to deal with it,” he said, according to Civitas Media.

Boehner also suggested that strengthening laws barring the hiring of illegal immigrants — principally mandated use of the E-Verify work authorization system — would wait until new laws make it easier for employers to hire foreign workers. ”I’m not sure we’re ready for nationwide E-Verify until we get into substantial immigration reform,” he said.

On Monday, Boehner told the Cincinnati Enquirer that President Barack Obama has to help the GOP pass any immigration bill. “He wants to get it done. I want to get it done. … He’s going to have to help us in this process,” he said.

But when the two leaders met Feb. 25, Boehner didn’t tell Obama how he could help the process by building trust with skeptical GOP legislators. “I told the president I’ll leave that to him,” he told the newspaper.

Immigration is very sensitive because it is so important.

Progressives, business interests and farm interests are pushing to increase the inflow of blue-collar workers and university-trained professionals, up from the current inflow of one million immigrants and 650,000 non-agriculture workers each year.

The Senate immigration bill, passed last June, would provide an conditional amnesty to more than 11 million illegal immigrants, double legal immigration for a decade, and permanently double the inflow of non-agriculture guest workers. The inflow would add roughly three foreign workers to the labor supply for every four Americans who turn 18 during the next decade.

GOP leaders have drafted several immigration bills, but have not brought them up for a floor vote.

The GOP bills include a measure by Republican Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte that would allow companies to employ 750,000 foreign workers for use in the food sector. If passed, that bill would allow Ohio’s employers to hire roughly 20,000 low-wage workers for jobs sought by Americans.

Despite the strong pressure from business interests, public opposition has caused Boehner and other GOP leaders to delay any action, so far. Some polls show conditional public support for amnesty, but many polls show hostility from GOP voters and swing voters, especially to demands by business for more guest workers, who would work in dairy farms, the food sector, hotels, resorts, universities, financial firms and high-tech companies.

Some GOP leaders also oppose the increased inflow of foreign workers.

Boehner’s Farm Forum also featured a speech by Hank Meijer, co-CEO and co-chairman of Meijer Inc. The grocery company buys huge quantities of agricultural goods from farmers, and also uses a small number of university-trained guest workers at its headquarters.

Progressives strongly support the Senate immigration bill, which would accelerate the shift of House seats away from GOP-majority states toward Democratic-dominated states that contain many immigrants, and would also put millions of Democratic-leaning immigrants on a multi-year path to the ballot box.

Boehner echoed some of the progressives’ language.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” Boehner said.

In the Cincinnati Enquirer interview, Boehner also echoed Obama’s claim that the award of residency and work permits to illegals would not be amnesty. “Some want to call it amnesty. I reject that premise. … If you come in and plead guilty and pay a fine, that’s not amnesty,” Boehner said.

Boehner also backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as a 2016 candidate. In several speeches, Bush has backed greater immigration.

“I’m a big fan of Jeb Bush. I’ve been pushing him to [run]. He’s a great guy, smart, articulate. He can talk about our party and who we are better than almost anybody that’s out there and he’s one of my best friends,” he said.

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