AFTER several days of markup, the Senate Judiciary Committee completed work on its comprehensive immigration reform bill.
The bill includes the monumental compromise between farm workers and the agriculture industry that would create a new agricultural visa program and path to citizenship for an estimated 1.4 million currently undocumented farm workers (Feedstuffs, April 22).
The 13-5 approval out of committee sets the stage for Senate action, which is expected to last for most of June as Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has indicated that he wants to clear as much time as needed.
Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), explained that she expects a lot of debate and discussion on the full Senate floor, but she's hopeful that the debate and rhetoric will be limited while still allowing senators to fully vet ideas like the committee did.
Although more than 300 amendments were filed, only half of them received an actual vote, Boswell noted. Overall, the "delicate" agreement between the United Farm Workers and major grower associations was left intact.
Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president for government relations at the American Nursery & Landscape Assn., said challenges on the floor certainly are likely, "but ag is well-positioned to be an engine rather than an anchor that drags movement of the bill forward. At the end of the day, we need to remind Congress again and again that this is fundamentally an economic issue, a U.S. competitiveness issue."
Boswell said two amendments that could come up on the floor relate to family members of those holding specific working visas, which AFBF supports but "has to balance the politics of that."
Determining the best way to ensure identification is also a hot topic, whether through fingerprinting, Social Security cards or some other means. Those in the agriculture industry don't want to see excessive additional costs passed on to farmers but also realize that it's important to make sure technology keeps pace, Boswell said.
AFBF president Bob Stallman added that the bill helps ensure an adequate supply of farm labor but also will provide an increased level of surveillance of high-risk areas along the nation's borders.
"We know that one of the best ways to improve border security is to create a legal, workable way for farm workers to enter our country. If we do not have to waste resources locking up lettuce harvesters, we can focus on keeping those with criminal intentions out of our country," Stallman said.
United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez, who was integral in helping forge the compromise between farm workers and the industry, said under the proposal, farm workers would be able to work in the fields without fear of getting deported immediately and can be reunited with their families in a relatively short period of time.
The bill would give professional farm workers temporary legal status and the right to earn a green card in the future by continuing to work in agriculture.
The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing May 22 to evaluate the Senate's proposal and also to make sure the proposed legislation prevents the past from repeating itself, according to committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.).
The "Gang of 8" in the House has also been working on its own comprehensive bill.
Boswell said she's optimistic that the group will release more thorough language of the proposal after Memorial Day.
Members of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition indicated that agricultural provisions similar to what's in the Senate bill likely will also surface in the comprehensive House bill.
Goodlatte has proposed an individual bill addressing the agricultural guestworker revamp that allows food manufacturers to apply for the guestworker program.
In the Senate bill, food manufacturers are not included in the new agricultural visa programs. However, Regelbrugge said their interests are addressed in two places: (1) the revisions to the H-2b program when work is seasonal and (2) the new W visa program that provides three-year visas for workers in "lesser-skill," non-agricultural settings.
Boswell added that the inclusion of food manufacturers could potentially affect the cap on agricultural visas spelled out in the Senate version.