San Diego Union Tribune

April 20, 2005

Legal status for undocumented farmworkers fails

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – The Senate turned back a proposal yesterday to offer legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented farmworkers, but advocates vowed to press on despite what they called a temporary setback in their efforts to reform the nation's immigration laws.

"We will be back," declared Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, taking satisfaction in the 53 votes the measure received.

While that represented a majority of the 100-member Senate, it fell short of the 60 votes the proposal needed to stay alive as an amendment to an emergency funding bill for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the time being, victory belonged to those who fought the proposal, which was sponsored by Craig and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

It would have offered legal status to most of the nation's undocumented farmworkers, who are estimated to account for between 50 percent and 75 percent of the nation's agricultural work force of approximately 2 million workers.

California's Democratic senators took opposite sides. Sen. Dianne Feinstein opposed the "Agjobs" bill, calling it a magnet for more illegal immigration. Sen. Barbara Boxer supported it.

Workers who qualified for the program would have been eligible for green cards if they performed 360 days of farm work within six years of the program's enactment. The highly coveted visas provide the right to live permanently in the United States and eventually to apply for citizenship.

"It's still amnesty by any name you want to call it," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., had warned during the floor debate.

Rosemary Jenks, whose Internet-based organization NumbersUSA had mobilized its members in a phone and fax campaign against the proposal, acknowledged that some senators voted against it because they did not want to tie immigration to an emergency appropriations bill for the military.

"But we also argued that the potential for fraud was massive, and that the program was clearly an offer of amnesty," she said.

Amnesty appears to be the most politically loaded word in the immigration debate, which is expected to intensify in the coming weeks.

Kennedy has teamed up with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to draft a more ambitious immigration reform bill. Kennedy had praised Agjobs as a model for a broader proposals affecting undocumented workers in all sectors of the economy.

McCain and Kennedy want to offer legal status to most of the 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country now, 19 years after landmark amnesty legislation. Congress claimed to be containing illegal immigration with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which combined amnesty for workers already here with a promise of a crackdown on employers who knowingly offered jobs to illegal immigrants.

The amnesty was a big success. The crackdown never materialized.

Before yesterday's vote on Agjobs, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected an alternative measure sponsored by Kyl and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Their proposal would have granted farmworkers temporary legal status while stopping short of offering them a green card.

"That vote makes clear that if we want to have immigration reform, it has to be bipartisan," said Rob Williams, a lawyer who represented farmworkers in the talks with growers that led to Agjobs.

A noncontroversial third amendment, approved on a 94-6 vote, would raise the limit on temporary visas for seafood workers in Maryland.

Williams said Agjobs would shield illegal immigrant farmworkers not only from abusive employers but also from smugglers who sometimes treat them brutally and whose fees often exceed $2,000 for transport across the border into the United States.

While a ticket to permanent legal status was Agjob's principal draw for the workers, growers signed on for the opportunity to have a stable work force and a more user-friendly federal program to bring in future workers when Americans were not readily available. Those future workers, however would not be offered green cards under the Craig-Kennedy plan.

Both sides claimed to have a stronger commitment to the rule of law in managing immigration flows that both agreed were out of control.

Craig said his proposal offered a means "to control our borders, identify the undocumenteds that are within, to provide America with a safe, identifiable, most importantly legal labor supply."

He warned that if enforcement is not matched with a program to provide foreign workers to growers, "We literally could collapse American agriculture."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., condemned the Agjobs proposal as a "capitulation . . . a total collapse of any attempt to create an enforceable legal system" of immigration law.

Despite the defeat, Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino rights organization, was encouraged by the support for Agjobs.

"I think it will live to fight another day," she said.

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