San Diego Union Tribune

April 19, 2005

Senate to vote on legal status for immigrant farmworkers

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – The Senate is scheduled to vote today on a proposal to grant legal status to at least 500,000 undocumented farmworkers, a plan that immigration advocates hope might set the stage for a broader program to legalize immigrants at work in all areas of the U.S. economy.

The measure's sponsors say it would stabilize the agricultural work force and protect workers from abusive employers. Critics argue it would reward those who crossed the border illegally and generate more illegal immigration.

"We either create a legal work force, a work force that is identifiable, or we keep stumbling down this road" of massive illegal immigration and an uncontrolled border, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said in opening debate yesterday.

Craig and co-sponsor Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are offering the measure as an amendment to a popular supplemental funding bill for U.S. military operations in Iraq. Under an agreement reached last week, this and other immigration amendments require a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority to pass – a tough hurdle for controversial legislation such as this.

The amendment would provide temporary legal status to workers who performed at least 100 days of fieldwork between mid-2003 and the end of 2004. It would offer a green card, which grants permanent residence and a path to citizenship, to those who perform at least 360 days of farm work in the six-year period after enactment.

The workers' immediate family members also would be granted legal status, leading some critics to push the estimate of the number who might be legalized under the amendment to 1 million.

The future work requirement marks a sharp departure from the 1986 federal legislation that granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants who could demonstrate that they had worked for a specific period of time before passage. But critics warn that the limits will be overwhelmed by a crush of immigrants scrambling across the border to make fraudulent claims that they are eligible.

"This is going – mark my words – to be a huge magnet," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., warned last week on the Senate floor.

"They come over and you cannot find them and they don't go home," she said. "What happens is the numbers build up, the people in Southern California find people camping in their back yards, in their gullies, and in the parks. There is no housing, the schools are overcrowded . . . ."

Feinstein's position puts her at odds with Sen. Barbara Boxer, a fellow California Democrat who, along with most other Democrats, favors the amendment. The legislation's fate is likely to hinge on Craig's ability to woo Republicans, most of whom have opposed it.

According to estimates, 1.25 million farmworkers, about 50 percent of the agricultural work force, are in the United States illegally. Some 600,000 of them work in California.

An immigration measure passed by the House would in effect require proof of legal residency to obtain driver licenses and would expedite completion of a fence along an environmentally sensitive area of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. Those provisions aren't in the Senate bill. An effort to add them appears unlikely.

If the Senate approves the agricultural guest-worker provision, a conference committee would assemble members of both houses to work out the differences. The Senate bill, the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act, has been dubbed Agjobs.

During yesterday's debate on the Senate floor, Kennedy struck a theme that has become a favorite of lawmakers who back large-scale legalization of the nation's undocumented work force. He contended that those who simply call for enforcement of existing immigration laws are out of touch with economic and political reality.

"Massive deportations are unrealistic as a policy," said Kennedy, who is preparing to introduce a bill that would provide sweeping legalization for the 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the country. By bringing these immigrants "out of the shadows, we will enable law enforcement to focus their efforts on terrorists and criminals," he said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said a proposal as controversial as the one the Senate is considering should not be attached to an appropriations measure.

"We absolutely should not be attempting to slip legislation of such great importance and on which our country is so divided" into a bill to fund U.S. troops, he said.

The Senate is expected to consider two other immigration-related amendments to the Iraqi supplemental funding measure. One would provide legal status to farmworkers without putting them on a path to citizenship.

The other, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is an effort to aid her state's crab-meat processors by expanding the number of non-agricultural guest-worker visas. The annual 66,000-visa quota was quickly exhausted this year, leaving the signature industry of the Chesapeake Bay scrambling for help on Capitol Hill.

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