Senate negotiators close in on immigration deal

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 9, 2013 6:50pm EDT

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) watches his colleagues speak during a news conference following their tour of the Arizona-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona March 27, 2013. REUTERS/Samantha Sais

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) watches his colleagues speak during a news conference following their tour of the Arizona-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona March 27, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Samantha Sais

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate negotiators on Tuesday were putting the finishing touches on a bipartisan immigration bill as labor and agriculture groups argued about restrictions on immigrant farmworkers and their pay, lawmakers and officials involved in the negotiations said.

"We're making progress. We're trying to get it done this week," Senator John McCain told reporters.

The Arizona Republican is one of eight Democrats and Republicans in the Senate trying to cobble together a complicated bill that would update immigration laws for the first time since 1986.

In recent weeks, labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce reached tentative agreement on the handling of low-skilled workers from foreign countries who would work as construction laborers, maids and waiters.

That left one big unresolved matter: the rules for bringing foreign farmworkers into the United States to harvest crops, milk cows and work on poultry and cattle operations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently estimated that of the 1.1 million workers in agriculture, 500,000-700,000 are undocumented.

At a speech this week to agriculture journalists, Vilsack said that assuring a strong labor supply is a matter of importing workers versus importing food. "We risk the possibility of some of the work we do in this country moving to other nations," he said.

The agriculture industry and farmworker groups have been haggling over the cap that would be set under the Senate bill for foreign farm labor, whether those already in the United States would be allowed to stay and pay levels for the temporary workers.

"We want to make sure farmworkers are making at least as much money as they are today, not less," Diana Tellefson Torres, a United Farm Workers vice president, told the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of an agriculture industry coalition, said labor can account for one-third of the cost of production of fruits and vegetables, so wage rates are important. Noting the need for a high cap on farmworker visas compared to other sectors, he said, "what's different about agriculture is it's the nation's food supply."

But some labor groups fear that too many foreign workers would depress U.S. wages or kill some American jobs.

Regelbrugge said there are discussions of a new visa that would run more than 12 months so immigrant laborers do not have to routinely exit the U.S. for brief periods, leaving farms short-handed. While some growers need help only at harvest, dairies and livestock feeders need workers all year.

FAST-TRACK IN SENATE

The linchpin of the immigration bill would end deportation fears for most of the approximately 11 million people who are living in the United States illegally, many from Central America and Asia. The legislation would eventually put many of them on a path to citizenship, if further progress was made in securing the southwestern border with Mexico.

The eight senators outlined their proposal in late January and have been struggling to fill in the details of a bill that could move quickly through the Senate once it is unveiled.

If a bill is introduced by Monday, Senate aides said it could be debated, and possibly amended, in the Senate Judiciary Committee by April 18, with a committee vote by April 25, just before the start of a week-long Senate recess.

Under this accelerated timetable, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would try to schedule a full Senate debate in May.

However, delays are possible at any point in the process.

Republicans, who have opposed any moves to grant citizenship to undocumented residents, began taking an active interest in immigration changes after Hispanic-Americans voted against them in droves in the November 2012 election.

With the 2014 congressional elections around the corner, immigration reform advocates are hoping Congress can handle this issue in 2013, before campaign rhetoric heats up and possibly spoils chances for a bipartisan deal.

Supporters also want a strong, bipartisan showing in the Senate for legislation, which they think will propel it through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where there are more conservatives lawmakers who could reject a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

The House might try to pass immigration bills in a piecemeal fashion that could be merged with a Senate-passed bill. Some aides have said the House bill might require a longer wait time than the Senate bill for undocumented residents to earn citizenship - as long as 15 years, versus 10 to 13 years in the Senate bill.

(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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Comments (6)
AdamSmith wrote:
For them to say America needs a guest worker program of imported Mexican laborers is spreading the dangerous propaganda authored by big money corporate interests who want to reduce their labor costs.

The American agricultural worker is famous for hard, hard, back-breaking work. The American worker is what made America great, not its spoiled children of the wealthy who have inherited their wealth.

The American worker, whether in agriculture, construction trades, manufacturing, or engineering, has historically been the best, hardest working, and most productive worker in the world. And, until sold down the river by NAFTA, they have historically, been the BEST PAID workers in the world. Yes, the American worker was the best paid in the world, and the most productive.

American big-money corporate agriculture of today needs to start paying agricultural workers not poor pay, not low pay, not cheap pay, not skimpy pay, but GOOD pay.

Then you will see hordes of good American workers lined up to do the very hardest of agricultural work, and they will do it better than the foreign, low-pay worker doing it today on guest-worker programs.

Agriculture today is corporate, big-money, highly organized, highly connected politically, and fully corrupt. Big-money agricultural interests utterly control the State legislatures in almost every state.

Those legislatures have stabbed the American worker, the best worker in the world, in the back. He, the American worker, is what the big-agricultural money interests aim to destroy.

America needs to prohibit all guest-worker programs.

We have our own workers, Americans, millions of them, and they need work. But they need it at, not poor, low, insufficient wages, but good, American wages. American agricultural WORKERS need the kind of wage they can raise their families on, not the kind where you go broke no matter how hard you work.

The guest-worker program is government corruption at its very worst, written by corporate lawyers, and enacted by Congress.

Immigration is destroying the American middle class.

America does not need guest agricultural workers from Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, India – or anywhere.

Apr 09, 2013 8:59pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
PenRumi wrote:
It would be wise to deal with immigration reform in piecemeal fashion, initially geared towards Latinos working in agriculture, construction, and hospitality. It is true that the agriculture and hospitality business will suffer if the undocumented workers are not allowed some sort of relief, such as temporary visas and guest workers program. However, if undocumented workers in agriculture are legalized under a blanket amnesty current workers will leave the agricultural industry for better opportunities, creating a dearth of workers again in agriculture.

There is a danger that, unlike in 1986, immigration reform may unwittingly create an existential danger to the homeland. There are over a million extremists from Asia and Africa hiding in the shadows in the United States. A blanket amnesty will allow these extremists to come out of the shadows and carry out terrorist attacks. These extremists are now learning Spanish with the intention to pass as Latinos.

Talk of immigration reform is already creating a surge in illegal immigration, specifically from Asia; they are hoping to take advantage of any kind of amnesty in the near future. Once said and done, the United States will be dealing over 20 million instead of the often-cited figure of 11 undocumented immigrants.

Apr 09, 2013 9:44pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
PenRumi wrote:
Addendum: Political considerations should not jeopardize the security of the homeland.

The United States is a country that functions splendidly as a free, democratic entity. That is not acceptable to extremists/anarchists; they are determined to bring down this entity.

Apr 09, 2013 10:46pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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