Eight Senators Tuesday revealed a summary of the first sweeping proposal to reform immigration laws in the U.S. since 2007, providing farmworkers and their employers with a look at how new legislation may affect agriculture.
The "gang of eight" – Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Robert Menendez, D-N.J. and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. – have been working on the plan behind closed doors since the beginning of the year.
Among the key policy priorities of the agriculture industry are a comprehensive work visa program, a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S., and a separate process towards legalization and citizenship for farm workers.
In the summary, Senators propose a "W-Visa" program for guest workers, starting in 2015. The program would allow immigrants to remain in the U.S. for three years, and cannot work in areas with high unemployment rates.
Also part of the proposal, the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act would allow current undocumented farm workers to obtain legal status through an agricultural card program. The card would be available to undocumented workers who have made a prior commitment to agricultural work. If certain requirements are met, card holders may then transition to legal permanent resident status.
Specifically, the summary says a portable, at-will employment based visa (W-3) and a contract-based visa (W-2) would replace the current H-2A program.
Summary follows Friday agreement
The Agricultural Workforce Coalition, the United Farm Workers and a collection of Senators Friday ironed out details that will likely become clearer as a full immigration proposal is unveiled. That agreement includes provisions on farm worker wage levels, caps on agricultural guest worker visas and protections for U.S. workers.
The compromise was led by Sens. Rubio, Bennet, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
UFW said Friday that the group was "pleased" with the farm worker proposal, which they note will allow farm workers to work in the fields without fear of getting deported.
As noted, the bill also would give professional farm workers presently in the U.S. temporary legal status and the right to earn a green card in the future by continuing to work in agriculture.
"Farm workers are the backbone of our agriculture industry here in the United States and a speedier process toward proper documentation provides an incentive for those farm workers who are currently working in agriculture to continue working in agriculture," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez noted in a statement.
"We believe this compromise could be a vehicle for improving the working conditions and job opportunities for farm workers," Rodriguez added.
Leaders from the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which collaborated with UFW on the proposal, have scheduled a Wednesday conference to review the plan and answer questions publicly. Leaders of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Milk Producers Federation and United Fresh Produce Association will be present.
'It won't please everyone'
Regarding the full proposal, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday, Sens. McCain and Schumer wrote that, "like all genuinely bipartisan efforts, this bill is a compromise. It will not please everyone, and no one got everything they wanted."
McCain and Schumer went on to note that the bill would provide legal channels for workers to enter the U.S. to perform jobs for which there are no American applicants. This new program, they wrote, will "make sure that America continues to stay globally competitive by attracting the world's best and brightest, and by providing a way for America's employers to gain access the labor that they desperately need."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet Friday to hear testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano regarding the Senators' proposal. An additional hearing is scheduled for April 22.
Sen. Rubio said following the announcement that he was hopeful the hearings would bring openness and transparency to the negotiations.
Rubio added that the timing of Friday's hearing will "give the American people and their senators a chance to better prepare for this first major opportunity to ask questions about the bill."