Senate Immigration Bill Has Its Ag Shortcomings

The Senate passed its comprehensive immigration bill but still shows agricultural support not united.

The Senate passed another bill, and pulled out all of the stops to get 14 Republicans on board as the body approved by a vote of 68-32 comprehensive immigration reform. The bill includes a new agricultural worker program and establishes a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers, but does show that support within the agricultural Senators are not united.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744, includes agricultural provisions negotiated by the United Farm Workers and major grower associations, and enables undocumented farm workers to obtain legal immigration status. It will also stabilize the farm labor workforce through incentives for immigrants to continue working in U.S. agriculture, supporters say.

Ag workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours prior to December 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, no convictions and pay a fine. They can also work 150 hours for three years to earn a Green Card status.

In the final days before the vote, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., attempted to tighten up what he saw as very low threshold to gaining a Green Card status compared to those outside of the ag workforce. He wanted to have 180 days for each of the 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," he said.

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 UFW and ag groups.

He feared the Blue Card program as currently approved in the Senate version could lead to an influx of illegals because it provides a "faster, cheaper and easier way" to a Green Card than other undocumented workers.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair, 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 (FMIC) had urged 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.

Sen. Rob Portman's, R-Ohio, proposal would modify the mandatory universal employer use of the E-Verify program – which uses an applicant’s Social Security number to check citizenship status of prospective workers – did not get a floor vote. Sought by meat packers, the amendment would allow companies to alert the federal government to applicants who obtain an E-Verify okay using stolen or fraudulent identification. The current E-Verify requirement doesn’t go far enough, industry says, to protect against stolen identification, explained Steve Kopperlund, in his Washington Report newsletter June 28. Portman’s language, which supporters say will be in the final version if approved by Congress, would allow employers to access a “knowledge-based” ID system that would allow an employer to ask the applicant a series of questions based on information collected from various government sources.

A spokesperson for the National Chicken Council said there are a number of provisions in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill that 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."

The National Chicken Council is extremely disappointed, however, that the Portman/Tester Amendment was not considered or adopted. "We look forward to the opportunity in the House to accomplish these important improvements to the legislation," Tom Super, NCC spokesperson said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, spoke against the bill, saying it doesn’t go far enough on illegal immigrant enforcement measures. Grassley voted against the bill, as did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking member.

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