AFTER months of behind-the-scenes work and three weeks of debate on the Senate floor, the Senate approved comprehensive immigration reform that includes a new agricultural worker program and establishes a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers.
S. 744, which passed by a vote of 68-32, includes agricultural provisions negotiated by the United Farm Workers and major grower associations. It will also stabilize the farm labor workforce through incentives for immigrants to continue working in U.S. agriculture, supporters said.
Agricultural workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours prior to Dec. 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 or convictions and pay a fine. They can also work 150 hours for three years to earn green card status.
In the final days before the vote, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) attempted to tighten up what he saw as a very low threshold for earning green card status compared to workers outside the agriculture sector. He sought 180 days each year for 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," Chambliss said.
He fears that the blue card program in the Senate bill could lead to an influx of illegals because it provides a "faster, cheaper and easier way" to a green card than other undocumented workers.
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 workers union and agricultural groups.
Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the 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 had pushed 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 was not voted on either.
A spokesperson for the National Chicken Council said a number of provisions in the Senate's immigration reform bill 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."
However, the council, too, was very disappointed that the Portman/Tester Amendment was not considered or adopted.
Just a first step
President Barack Obama praised the significant step Senate passage represents but reiterated that the bill is a compromise. "By definition, nobody got everything they wanted: not Democrats, not Republicans, not me," he said.
Obama added, "We have a unique opportunity to fix our broken system in a way that upholds our traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. We just need Congress to finish the job."
Several groups released statements of support for the bill and called on the House to take up a similar approach.
A statement from American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman welcomed the "fair and workable farm labor provision" and said "a comprehensive agricultural labor plan that works for all sectors of agriculture and across all regions of our nation is long overdue."
National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson said the bill provides "peace of mind for all parties in agriculture to know that a more easy-to-use and effective system will be enacted."
National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., president Scott George said, "This action by the Senate is a step in the right direction, and we look forward to engaging with members of the House in ensuring that the priorities of cattlemen and women are met in final legislation."
A strong, year-round workforce is paramount to the success of the cattle industry, he added.
The House has taken a different approach to immigration reform so far, although a comprehensive bill has yet to be proposed. House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) has introduced a step-by-step approach to reforming the immigration laws.
"While I congratulate the Senate for working hard to produce immigration reform legislation, I have many concerns about its bill. The bill repeats many of the same mistakes made in the 1986 immigration law, which got us into this mess in the first place," Goodlatte noted. "Among my many concerns, the Senate bill does not adequately address the interior enforcement of our immigration laws and allows the Executive Branch to waive many, if not most, of the bill's requirements."