Senate limits debate on immigration reform; vote to come soon
Update 5/25/06: Farm Bureau welcomes progress on landmark immigration bill
Editor's note: Because of the volatility of this issue and the changeable situation in Congress, this report is accurate as of 4 p.m. PDT on May 24. Updates on federal immigration reform legislation of interest to California farmers and ranchers can be found online at www.cfbf.com and in the next issue of Ag Alert®.
In a move that will clear the way to final passage of immigration reform legislation this week, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to limit debate on the sweeping legislation that will establish this nation's immigration policies in the years ahead.
Once the Senate adopts its version of immigration reform—and Washington insiders expect the vote to come tomorrow—the Senate bill and a version approved earlier by the House of Representatives will become the subject of House—Senate conference committee negotiations.
There is one key difference between the two bills that will need to be hashed out in conference. The Senate version as it stands right now contains provisions that would allow farmworkers to apply for legal status in this country and eventual U.S. citizenship. The House version contains no such provision.
Earlier this week, the Senate rejected on a 50-43 vote an amendment by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., that would have created a new formula for establishing the prevailing wage for all workers who would be eligible for legal status in this country under the comprehensive immigration bill.
Later, on a vote of 83-10, the Senate approved an amendment by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., to authorize National Guard troops to be deployed to the U.S.-Mexican border, as proposed by President Bush.
The Chambliss amendment would have required that all farmworkers be paid at a prevailing wage as determined by the Labor Department. It also would have covered illegal farmworkers applying for legal status under the "blue card" program proposed in the bill.
"Unfortunately, when Chambliss submitted his amendment, he broadened it to also include workers outside the current H2A program, and he created a new definition of prevailing wage that would have been harmful to California agriculture," said Jack King, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation's National Affairs Division.
The Chambliss amendment to Senate Bill 2611 was just one of several being considered by the Senate. During the past week several amendments were approved during floor votes.
AgJOBS, which is included in the legislative package and strongly supported by CFBF, has not been significantly altered in the amendment process. A number of noteworthy changes or additions to the bill have been approved.
These amendments include expansion of fencing along 370 miles and addition of 800 miles of vehicular barriers along the U.S.-Mexican border and a declaration that English is the common and unifying language of the United States.
Senators indicated they felt much had been accomplished last week in hammering out details of the final reform package. Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hinted that the Democrats were at the end of their amendments.
A final vote on the Senate's completed version of immigration reform legislation is expected before the week is over. The measure will then need to be reconciled in conference committee with the House of Representatives' version-HR 4437. The enforcement-only provisions in the House version have sparked widespread public protests.
One of those who has been out front on immigration reform is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is seeking changes to the current bill to allow more workers to qualify for legal status in this country.
"The challenge is to find a way to stop the flow of these people into the United States through a much more effective border security program, and at the same time enable these people, many of whom are long-time residents, hard workers and with American-born children, to be able to enter a path toward legal status.
"How we deal with the current undocumented population is especially important to me because of the enormous impact it will have and is having on my home state of California," she said. "If we don't get it right, we will end up repeating mistakes of the past... we will simply create new incentives for illegal immigration... and we will enhance the problems our country now faces in tracking who is coming and going across our borders."
President Bush, whose proposals for immigration reform address the issues of greatest concern to California farmers and ranchers, is urging senators to finish their work on the reform package by the end of May. With the Memorial Day recess looming, that means details will have to be finalized in the next few days.
"We continue to try to be optimistic about the work the Senate is doing on immigration reform," said CFBF President Doug Mosebar. "It may be another matter when it goes to conference committee. That will be another big hurdle that will have to be jumped. We intend to monitor that process closely and remain involved.
"Farm Bureau leaders have just returned from trip to Washington, D.C., where immigration reform was a major topic of discussion with elected officials and their staffs," Mosebar said. "We have not focused all of our efforts on the Senate and what has been going on there.
"We know that when the House and Senate versions of immigration reform legislation go to conference committee that it's very, very important that we've laid our groundwork with the members of the House, particularly our own congressional delegation."
Mosebar said California farmers and ranchers share a real concern about border security issues with all Americans. He said President Bush's introduction of the Border Security Initiative on national television last week was a welcome development. The president announced deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops to the border to support Homeland Security border patrol agents and a 1,000-person increase in the number of agents.
This increase in border security manpower, however, would require nearly $2 billion in additional federal funding. The proposed triple-layer border fence proposed for about 370 miles would cost an estimated $3 million a mile.
So far, the Senate version of immigration reform is carrying a $54 billion price tag for new federal spending between 2007 and 2016. The Congressional Budget Office also estimated new revenue flowing to the federal government as a result of the reforms would total more than $66 billion during the same period, an anticipated net gain of $11 billion.
Some Republicans oppose an element of the president's plan that would give many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country an opportunity to become citizens if they meet certain conditions. Bush said it is "neither wise nor realistic" to round up illegal immigrants and return them to their home countries.
"We must address the elements that go beyond border security," Mosebar said. "We have people who want to come to the United States to work. These are people willing to work at agricultural jobs, people who see this country as a land of opportunity, people who want better lives for themselves and their families.
"California agriculture needs a functioning temporary worker program," he said. "We need a program that allows people to come here and go back home when the farming season is over. What's happening now is that once workers get here they're almost trapped here.
"The current situation—dangerous border crossings, false documentation, failure to properly pay taxes or legally participate in society—is creating more problems because people are afraid to cross the border and go back home."
Ralph DeLeon, a farm labor contractor based in Santa Paula and a member of CFBF's Labor Advisory Committee, said the current H2A is a "bureaucratic nightmare." He said the program works better in Arizona than in California because Arizona's' growing regions are very close to the border.
"But we still have to go through the U.S. Department of Labor to get the approval, and you have to have your housing approved 30 days before occupancy," DeLeon explained. "After that's approved by the DOL you have to go to Homeland Security to get them to approve your application.
"You always get the workers late and sometimes you don't get the workers in time," he said. "We're working with highly perishable, seasonal crops that won't wait on the government to be harvested.
"But we don't just use H2A," he said. "In California, we use the domestic labor force, but right now we are very short of people. I brought H2A workers into California in 2001 and was sued by California Rural Legal Assistance so I quit bringing H2A's into California."
De Leon said he realizes that pursuing immigration reform is "not an easy path for Congress and the bottom line is that no matter what kind of bill comes out there will be people who oppose it no matter what. But we have got to have a more workable immigration system. We cannot continue on as we have been and protect the rights of citizens and the Constitution."
Mosebar said Farm Bureau leaders and staff are in constant contact with officials at the White House and in Congress as deliberations on the Senate version of reform continues.
"When we deal with issues with as much importance as this, we need to look at them with a longer view, and ask: 'Where are we ultimately going with all this?' If we don't handle this issue properly—and treat the people who've earned it with respect—we will be sending more of our food production off shore.
"What I see as the underlying issue in these deliberations is the basic concern about how America puts food on the table."
(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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