WASHINGTON Agricultural laborers would be on a separate path to U.S. citizenship than other undocumented workers in the immigration reforms proposed by eight senators on Monday that cited the importance of feeding America.
Many of the 1.5 million farm workers employed in the United States annually - perhaps 500,000 to 900,000 in all - are believed to be in the country illegally.
Farmers, ranchers and nursery operators say the immigrant workforce is vital because it is difficult to recruit Americans for the low-paying, often back-breaking labor such as fruit picking, vegetable harvesting and daily care of livestock.
In a four-page outline, the senators say "agricultural workers who commit to the long-term stability of our nation's agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume."
"These individuals will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under our new agricultural worker program," said the bipartisan group, which includes two of the top-ranking Democrats in the Senate and Arizona Republican John McCain.
SENATORS "STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION"
The phrasing was similar to a proposal from a dozen agricultural and nursery groups, working as the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, for a new farm labor program to replace the guest worker program now in place.
Coalition members regard Sens Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, as key legislators in the drive.
"We view this as a step in the right direction," said Kristi Boswell of the American Farm Bureau Federation, a coalition member. Ken Barbic of Western Growers Association, another coalition member, said his group was "largely encouraged" by the senators' proposal and that it mentioned agriculture twice.
Craig Regelbrugge of the American Landscape and Nursery Association said "it is essential that experienced farm workers are incentivized to continue working in the sector."
Besides the separate path for agriculture labor, the framework said reform would include "a workable program to meet the needs of America's agricultural industry, including dairy, to find agricultural workers when American workers are not available."
AG COALITION WANTS NEW WORKER PROGRAM
Under the farm coalition proposal, undocumented workers who agree to work in agricultural jobs for several more years would obtain permanent legal status and the right to work wherever they choose. The coalition would replace the H2-A guest worker program with a system of seasonal and full-year visas.
The bipartisan group said it aims to convert its guidelines into legislation by March and to send it to the House later this year.
"We believe this is the year Congress finally gets it done," said Sen Charles Schumer, New York Democrat.
The last major attempt at U.S. immigration reform was in 2007. Estimates say there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Earlier this month the 6-million-member Farm Bureau, the largest U.S. farm group, urged a new immigration law. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has also urged the farm sector to speak up for comprehensive reform.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; editing by Ros Krasny and Bob Burgdorfer)