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
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
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
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
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.
“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
“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,”