* Deal reached on farm worker wages, visa cap
* Some farm issues still being negotiated
* Senate Democrats plan quick timetable for bill
By Richard Cowan and Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, April 11 After months of
negotiations, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators aims to roll
out a comprehensive immigration bill on Tuesday, giving
President Barack Obama new hope that one of his top priorities
for 2013 will advance in Congress.
While the timing could still change, several congressional
sources said the eight senators - four Democrats and four
Republicans - plan to introduce their bill on Tuesday.
That is the latest they can unveil a measure - one that
would put 11 million people living illegally in the United
States on a path to citizenship - if Senate Democrats are to
stick with plans to hold a Judiciary Committee hearing on the
bill on Wednesday.
Prospects for the legislation brightened in the Senate when
a deal was struck behind closed doors on wages for foreign farm
laborers working in the United States. Senator Dianne Feinstein
added that the deal also would place a limit on visas for such
"We have an agreement on wages and the visa cap," Feinstein
told Reuters. The deal followed a six-hour negotiating session
on Wednesday, she said.
The Democratic senator is not one of the so-called "gang of
eight" writing the overall immigration legislation. But with her
home state of California being an agriculture powerhouse,
Feinstein was a lead negotiator on the farm worker provisions.
She refused to provide details of the wage and visa deal.
Between now and Tuesday, aides to the eight senators will
work to finish drafting the bill that intends to further tighten
security along the southwestern border with Mexico and pave the
way for more foreign high-skilled scientists, mathematicians and
engineers to work for high-tech firms in the United States.
Additional lower-skilled foreigners, from hotel maids to
construction workers, also would be available to U.S. companies
hungry for cheap labor, but under tight controls negotiated by
unions and business.
Agricultural employers complain that the current H-2A guest
worker program sets wages too high compared to pay scales in
rural areas and is unwieldy when growers need to recruit enough
workers in a timely manner.
Wages can account for one-third of the cost of growing
fruits and vegetables. The United Farmer Workers union has
warned against unduly low wages that would make it hard for farm
workers to support their families and could undercut wages in
The farm worker portion of the bill was seen as the last
major bit to be negotiated before senators could introduce their
Even at this late stage, negotiations were continuing on
bits of the farm worker section of the bill and other
miscellaneous matters, according to lawmakers and congressional
But with Hispanic groups clamoring for action and
Republicans in Congress still licking their wounds after being
soundly rejected by Hispanic-American voters last November, the
reform initiative was picking up steam, even though it still
faced a difficult road ahead.
ENDING ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION?
Aware of the potential pitfalls, prominent advocates of
immigration legislation were acknowledging the need to
permanently fix border problems.
"I want to end illegal immigration ... so that we never have
it again. I don't want another undocumented worker in this
country," Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois
told reporters on Wednesday after Hispanic lawmakers were
briefed by Senate Democratic negotiators.
The government estimates that of the 1.1 million workers in
agriculture, at least half are undocumented.
An immigration bill, which will attempt a comprehensive
update of U.S. policy for the first time since 1986, will try to
end years of illegal hiring of foreign workers amid labor
shortages in some sectors.
Craig Regelbrugge, a member of an agricultural employer
coalition, said "there are still important issues unresolved"
related to farm workers.
A key issue is the legal status for the tens of thousands of
farm workers who entered the United States without documents.
The United Farm Workers union argues they should be given
permanent resident status and the opportunity for citizenship.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, representing employers, has
suggested that legalization be tied to a commitment to work in
agriculture for a specified number of months.
Farm labor reform has two major parts - a decision on how to
treat workers in the country illegally and revamping of the
guest worker program. Employers want a new program to replace
the H-2A program, which they say makes it difficult to recruit
enough workers in a timely manner and sets wages too high. The
union has warned against formulas that would depress wages.
One proposal discussed by senators would allow up to 200,000
visas for new agricultural workers during the initial period of
a new immigration law. That would be in addition to visas to
cover the current number of H-2A workers, which has been
55,000-75,000 annually, according to an official familiar with
the talks. After 2020, the Agriculture Department would set the
cap on visas.
Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee will be an
opportunity for Republican opponents of a comprehensive
immigration bill to grill Homeland Security Secretary Janet
Napolitano on how she intends to build on border security
measures already taken. They also are expected to warn Democrats
to not rush legislation.
Nevertheless, the panel is expected to move quickly after
the hearing and schedule a session to consider amendments to the
bill before sending it to the full Senate for a likely debate
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a leading member
of the group of eight senators, told reporters that it was now
"time to get it finished and introduced."
Another Republican senator in the group, Lindsey Graham of
South Carolina, said he had "never felt more optimistic" about
an immigration bill moving forward in the Senate.
But he said, "You always worry that something this
complicated and emotional won't make it through."
Graham added, "The key is keeping business and labor
(unions) together on the guest worker program" that aims to
accommodate immigrant workers in agriculture and low-skilled