Immigrant Bill Attains Magic 60
Josephine Hearn, The Hill, May 4
With President Bush’s immigration bill languishing in Congress, the Senate is poised to pass bipartisan legislation that would grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of immigrant farm workers.
After seven years of negotiations, the measure picked up its 60th co-sponsor yesterday, giving it the filibuster-proof margin required to pass controversial bills.
“In this year, an election year, where it seems like so little is going to get passed, 60 really gives us the ability to get it moving,” said a spokesman for Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who introduced the legislation with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) last fall.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) was the 60th co-sponsor. He followed Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who signed on last week.
With its strong showing of support, the bill may be the only major immigration-reform measure to emerge from Congress this year after Bush highlighted immigration in his State of the Union address. Bush’s proposal cratered in Congress, having met with strong opposition from conservatives concerned that it would essentially give amnesty to the estimated 8 million to 10 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States.
The White House has yet to indicate a position on the smaller-in-scope farm-worker bill, called the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act or AgJOBS Act.
The AgJOBS bill would reform the H2-A visa program to make it easier for agriculture employers to recruit foreign workers, the majority of whom come from Mexico. It would also offer guest workers a path to a green card if they work 360 days in agriculture during a three-to six-year period.
Supporters of the bill estimate the about 500,000 workers would be eligible for permanent residency through the program.
The proposal enjoys the support of agriculture employers — including fruit and vegetable producers, dairy farmers, nursery and greenhouse employers and Christmas-tree growers — and employee groups such as the United Farm Workers.
Backers of the bill believe that they may soon gain more co-sponsors to join the 35 Democratic and 25 Republican backers.
“There are a lot of people who have told us, ‘I’m not a co-sponsor, but you do have my vote,’” said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition on Immigration Reform, a group of trade associations representing farmers and other agriculture employers. Agriculture employers are stepping up their efforts with senators from the Midwest, said a Senate aide.
Craig and Kennedy are eager to move the bill and have held discussions with Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) about how best to proceed. Hatch is a co-sponsor of the bill.
“Time is not our friend,” said another immigration lobbyist. “We’re the one [immigration bill] that is ripe and ready to move.”
Immigration reform is an extremely divisive issue in Congress, making broad bipartisan support essential for any successful measure, especially in an election year when partisan politics can dominate debate.
AgJOBS supporters face greater hurdles in the House, where support of the companion bill has lagged. Reps. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) have collected 104 co-sponsors, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) has not moved the bill through his panel.
“These issues are a little bit more polarizing [in the House],” Regelbrugge said.
“There is a very insidious anti-immigration movement that has had a pretty good degree of success in tapping into the insecurities of some segments of the population.”
Supporters are hoping a strong Senate vote will convince more House members to back the bill.
Immigration-control groups have been closely watching the progress of AgJOBS, criticizing it as amnesty for farm workers and claiming the number of workers eligible for the program could reach as many as 3 million.
Some Southern H2-A contractors and growers have also been opposed to AgJOBS. They are either happy with the status quo or are hoping for reform of the H2-A program that give them a better deal than does AgJOBS.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, have proposed a rival bill to AgJOBS that would reform the H2-A program to help agriculture employers but would not allow undocumented workers gain legal status.