There are about 1,600,000 workers in this country who work in agriculture. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., estimates that half of the 566,000 are in the United States with an undocumented status.
Immigration reform is hot on Capitol Hill this week, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist wants a vote before the Easter recess.
The House already approved a measure that does not provide any type of guest worker provision to account for the thousands of individuals who make up the agricultural workforce. Any bill passed out of the Senate would go to conference where leaders from each side would attempt to settle vast differences. An election year provides a tough timeline for immigration reform passage by the end of the year.
Judiciary Committee proposal includes amnesty for ag workers
Feinstein authored one immigration proposal approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The program allows an undocumented worker the opportunity to apply for a blue card if that worker could demonstrate that he or she has worked in American agriculture for at least 150 workdays within the previous 2 years before December 31, 2005.
After receiving blue cards, individuals who have then worked an additional period in American agriculture for 3 years, 150 workdays per year, or 100 workdays per year for 5 years, would be eligible for a green card. Their spouses could work, and their children could remain in the country with them.
Chambliss says amnesty hasn't worked in the past
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, proposed an amendment to remove the amnesty from the agricultural portion of that bill. Chambliss' amendment would allow illegal aliens to receive blue cards as prescribed by the Judiciary Committee's bill; however, at the end of a two-year period those workers must return to their home countries and enter the U.S. in a legal manner. In contrast, the Judiciary Committee's bill would provide a path to citizenship, which Chambliss opposes.
"We know from past experience that agricultural workers do not stay in their jobs for long, especially when they gain a legal status and have the option to work in less back-breaking occupations," says Chambliss. "My amendment provides for a reasonable and responsible transition to the H-2A program, and I believe it is an approach that will not repeat the mistakes of the past and is more in line with the way the vast majority of Americans believe we should deal with our large illegal population."
Chambliss says he opposes amnesty because the last time Congress addressed immigration reform, a similar amnesty approach did not work.
"The Judiciary Committee bill would not require illegal immigrants working in agriculture to wait in line behind everyone outside the country trying to legally enter the United States in order to get their permanent resident status. Not only is this unfair, but it is a repeat of the 1986 approach, which is widely recognized as seriously flawed," Chambliss added.
Chambliss also notes that after attending a naturalization ceremony recently in Atlanta, a number of new citizens asked him to reject an amnesty.
"These folks told me they felt it demeans the efforts they made to obey the law and wait in line to become a U.S. citizen. They realize what a valuable accomplishment they made. It does not seem fair to me to call what the process those newly naturalized citizens followed earned citizenship and also to call what the Judiciary Committee is asking the Senate to consider earned citizenship. There is a fundamental difference between the two and that should be recognized in the rhetoric of the Senate," says Chambliss."
There are presently 3.3 million people waiting in other countries legally for green cards, and those people should and will be processed first. It is estimated it will take, believe it or not, up to 6 years to process 3.3 million. These workers, these undocumented 12 million would go at the end of that line, and then one by one, they would come through that line.
With the Judiciary Committee bill, Feinstein explains that if the undocumented workers have worked steadily for the 6-year period, if they can show they have paid all back taxes, if they have avoided any criminal convictions, if they have learned English in that time, they would be granted a green card.