Agriculture anxious about fate of immigration reform

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The Senate debate on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S.1348) was loud and contentious the week following the Memorial Day break. The "grand bargain," as the measure has come to be known, was hammered out by an alliance of Republican and Democratic senators and aimed to provide a road to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrant workers while tightening border controls and security. It also would establish a new "temporary" worker program to fill the need for labor currently not filled by American-born workers. The bill drew fire from both the political right and the left and opponents successfully blocked efforts to bring the measure to a vote, leaving the fate of immigration reform murky.

The collapse of the current effort to enact immigration reform may have dire effects on agriculture, as undocumented workers account for most of the workforce that harvests fruits and vegetables in California, Texas and Florida, and even in the North and Northeast. Agriculture requires a dependable, stable workforce. Industry and U.S. farm workers in recent years have worked together to seek mechanisms to allow certain undocumented agricultural workers to gain legal status. Their joint effort is reflected in the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2007 (AgJOBS), which has been incorporated into the comprehensive bill.

The principal sponsors of AgJOBS in the Senate are Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. Twenty-six other senators are cosponsors. Under AgJOBS, 1.5 million currently undocumented agricultural workers would embark on a process leading to permanent residency and even citizenship.

The first step in that process requires undocumented agricultural workers to apply for a "ZA" visa if they are able prove they have worked in American agriculture for at least 150 workdays during the two years ended Dec. 31, 2006. The second step requires ZA visa holders to demonstrate they have worked in American agriculture for an additional 150 workdays per year for three years after the bill’s enactment, or 100 workdays per year for five years. If they can do so, they are eligible to apply for a green card, which confers permanent residency in the U.S., after the current backlog of applications is cleared. It was estimated it would take eight years to clear the backlog.

AgJOBS would be capped at 1.5 million ZA visas during the five years beginning with the bill’s enactment. ZA visa holders and their spouses and children would be allowed to travel in and out of the U.S. Spouses of ZA visa workers would be eligible to apply for their own work permits. Aliens participating in the program would be required to pay a fine and show they are current on their taxes and are learning English.

AgJOBS participants would go through the point system created in the comprehensive bill before receiving their green cards. But agricultural workers would be entitled to receive the maximum amount of points available so they are first to receive their green cards at the end of the estimated eight-year waiting period. At some point before agricultural workers receive their green cards, they must go back to their country of origin to officially apply.

"This legislation would create a separate agricultural workers program," Senator Feinstein said. "It provides a consistent, stable workforce for the one industry that depends almost exclusively on undocumented labor. And it provides a way out of the shadows for those who have worked in agriculture and who will continue to work in agriculture for a number of years."

Undocumented workers in other industries would embark on a similar road to permanent residency and citizenship under the comprehensive immigration reform bill. They, too, would be required to apply for a "Z" visa, which is valid for four years and must be renewed at least once. Green cards may only be earned after the current backlog of green card applications is cleared. There are application and renewal fees and fines to be paid as part of the process. Z visa applicants must be employed. They must pay fees and fines for each family member who remains with them.

Z visa holders applying for green cards would be sorted through a point system emphasizing job skills, education and English language proficiency. Family ties are considered but not given as much weight as currently.

The immigration bill would also establish a new temporary (guest) worker program for lower skilled workers not seeking citizenship, based on a "Y-1" visa. The bill initially envisioned issuing 400,000 Y-1 visas annually, with an escalator clause that could allow up to 600,000 visas to be issued in a year, should the market prove both need for the labor and the inability to attract U.S.-born individuals to the jobs. But an amendment offered by Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and passed by the Senate on May 23 limited the numbers of Y-1 visas to be issued each year to 200,000.

"The guest worker program in this bill is unproven and untested, and I’m very concerned about what it will do to wages in our country," Senator Bingaman said. "There are a variety of jobs that may be filled by guest workers, from construction to hotel service, and we shouldn’t be placing American workers in the position of competing with an unlimited number of guest workers."

The proposed temporary worker program was further restricted by an amendment passed June 7 that would place a five-year limit on the program. The amendment carried by a 49-48 vote and was the first significant setback for sponsors of the comprehensive bill.

A Y-1 visa holder would have the right to work in the U.S. for up to two years. He or she may renew the visa twice, but workers must return home for a year between each twoyear stint as a temporary worker in the U.S. Spouses and children may live with the Y-1 visa holder, but only if the family income is 150% of the poverty level.

The current H-2A program for agricultural workers and the H-2B program for nonagricultural seasonal workers would become parts of the new temporary worker program. One hundred thousand temporary work visas would be allotted annually for nonagricultural, seasonal workers. There would be no cap on the number of visas allotted to temporary agricultural workers.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 12, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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