The Senate approved by a vote of 68-32 comprehensive immigration reform which includes a new agricultural worker program and establishes a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers.
The comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744, includes agricultural provisions negotiated by the United Farm Workers and major grower associations, and enables undocumented farm workers to obtain legal immigration status. It will also stabilize the farm labor workforce through incentives for immigrants to continue working in U.S. agriculture, supporters say.
Ag workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours prior to December 31, 2012 can adjust to a new Blue Card status.
After a minimum of five years, workers who put in 100 hours per year in U.S. agriculture will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions and pay a fine. They can also work 150 hours for three years to earn a Green Card status.
In the final days before the vote, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) attempted to tighten up what he saw as very low threshold to gaining a Green Card status compared to those outside of the ag workforce. He wanted to have 180 days for each of the five years to qualify for the Green Card. "If you're going to put them on a preferential pathway, they should at least work half of the year for agriculture," he said.
His amendments were never voted on, not because they were poison pill amendments, but because the "sanctity of a deal was given higher priority over sound policy," Chambliss said of the deal forged between the UFW and ag groups.
He feared the Blue Card program as currently approved in the Senate version could lead to an influx of illegals because it provides a "faster, cheaper and easier way" to a Green Card than other undocumented workers.
Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president for government relations at the American Nursery & Landscape Assn. noted that some of Chambliss’ amendments would make it harder and more expensive for experienced farm workers to qualify for the agricultural blue card program, and therefore less attractive. "Those kinds of amendments would be non-starters for both the worker and employer advocates, and they would contribute to farm labor scarcity," he noted.
The Food Manufacturers Immigration Coalition (FMIC) had urged for a vote on the Portman-Tester amendment which would have strengthened employment verification and created both interim and permanent methods to deter identity theft. However, it too was not voted on.
A spokesperson for the National Chicken Council said there are a number of provisions in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill that are "positive, including a generous legalization program and the recognition that U.S. employers of lower-skilled workers need access to a ‘future flow’ of such workers."
The National Chicken Council is extremely disappointed, however, that the Portman/Tester Amendment was not considered or adopted. "We look forward to the opportunity in the House to accomplish these important improvements to the legislation," Tom Super, NCC spokesperson said.
Several groups released statements of support regarding the bill, and called on the House to take up a similar approach.
The House has taken a different approach to comprehensive immigration reform so far, although there remains work to propose a comprehensive bill in the House. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) has introduced a step-by-step approach to reforming the immigration laws.