San Diego Union Tribune

June 4, 2007

Calif. growers back immigration bill provision

It gives some workers green card eligibility

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – With the Senate resuming its debate on a wide-ranging immigration bill this week, interest groups are gearing up to push for changes in the bipartisan proposal that could amount to the most sweeping change in the nation's immigration laws in four decades.

For California's powerful agriculture lobby, the difficult work has been done already. Years of political prodding, preaching and courting has paid off with nearly universal support for a provision in the bill that would guarantee a ready labor force to pick and pack fruits and vegetables.

Hurdles loom for bill

The bipartisan coalition that forged the Senate compromise on immigration legislation has held together to stave off amendments from liberals and conservatives that could upset the delicate deal. This week, the group faces the biggest challenges to its cohesion. Here are some of the amendments:

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would expand the number of crimes defined as aggravated felonies, creating new grounds to deport illegal immigrants and make prospective immigrants inadmissible.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would force the Department of Homeland Security to process all family-based immigration applications that have been backlogged since January. The compromise bill clears up the backlog that formed before May 2005.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would require those voting in person to present photo identification.

Menendez and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., would raise the cap on green cards for the parents of U.S. citizens from 40,000 to 90,000 a year.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., would prevent newly legalized undocumented workers from earning the earned-income tax credit.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., would allow reunification green cards to be granted to the spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents, not just U.S. citizens.

Menendez and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., would attach a sunset date to the new point system that awards green cards based more on education and skill levels than family connections.

SOURCE: The Washington Post

“American agriculture is very, very solidly behind this bill, and we're going to do everything we can to push it forward,” said Craig Regelbrugge of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

What has growers satisfied is the Senate's acceptance of a provision called “Agjobs.” It would make illegal workers who continue doing farm work for three to five years eligible for green cards, or permanent residence status. At that point, they are likely to move from seasonal outdoor jobs to year-round, permanent jobs. For that reason, Agjobs also provides for an open-ended temporary foreign worker program for the growers to replenish the supply of farmworkers.

No industry relies more heavily on illegal immigrants than agriculture, whose jobs are seasonal, dangerous, physically demanding, low-paying and frequently require a willingness to move from place to place. No industry has been more active in trying to shape immigration policy for the past three decades.

Within the agricultural lobby, no group has been more influential than California growers, who hope this year to repeat the success they had in shaping the last major immigration law, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Back then, the growers relied heavily on Sen. Pete Wilson, the California Republican whose efforts helped provide amnesty for anyone who had worked at least 90 days in the fields during the previous year.

The 1986 law, which also made it a crime to knowingly employ illegal immigrants, was expected to put pressure on growers to improve wages and working conditions in order to keep their workers. When the field hands left in droves, the growers relied on workers who continued to cross the border illegally, dodging the Border Patrol as the promised crackdown on employers never materialized.

This year, the growers' stalwart is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has overcome her previous concerns that legalization programs only encourage more illegal immigration.


 

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“She was pretty much a vocal opponent” of legalization efforts, said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League.

“We had to keep plowing the ground with her,” said Bob Vice, a San Diego County avocado and citrus grower and former president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “We kept bringing in people to see her who were losing part of their crop or having trouble getting their crop off (the trees) when it was at the best price.”

Feinstein is now a sponsor of the Agjobs provision in the Senate bill, which would provide a path to citizenship to up to 1.5 million field hands nationwide who agree to work several more years picking lettuce, grapes, pears or any of the dozens of other labor-intensive crops that rely on a ready supply of workers, often within a narrow window of picking time.

“If there are not enough farmworkers to harvest the crops in the United States, we will end up relying on foreign countries to provide our food,” Feinstein said during the Senate debate, which resumes tomorrow after Congress took a weeklong Memorial Day recess.

She said California growers rely on undocumented immigrants for 90 percent of their work force, which reaches about 450,000 at peak season.

Agjobs would make field hands without proper visas eligible for a green card by working either 150 days in the fields annually for three years or 100 days in the fields annually for five years. The bill also provides for an agricultural guest-worker program that is far more streamlined than the current program, which has been spurned by California growers.

California's other senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, supports Agjobs even though she is an opponent of another aspect of the Senate bill, one that would provide low-wage guest workers to industries other than agriculture. Boxer joined Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., in sponsoring an amendment that would have eliminated that program.

One of Agjobs' principal architects is Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles, a longtime farmworker advocate. Berman said that if Agjobs is to avoid the 1986 law's failed legacy, enforcement will have to be effective both at the border and in the fields.

“We have to stop the supply of illegal surplus labor,” Berman said.

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