Migrant reform gains support
Stallman: 'First time in a long time that the environment for a bill has looked this good'
By DAN WHEAT
Several agricultural groups and at least one farmworker advocacy group are lauding a new bipartisan Senate bill on immigration reform, saying it looks like a positive step.
But a day after the proposal was announced, President Barack Obama said he opposes securing borders before legalizing illegal immigrants. His stance will jeopardize the effort, said Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., two of eight senators sponsoring the bill.
Prior to Obama's speech, Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Capital Press that the Senate bill is a "very positive" development.
"There's still work to be done in the details as to what an agricultural guestworker program will look like but this is the first time in a long time that the environment for a bill has looked this good," Stallman said.
"After years of delay that have harmed farmworkers and their families, we see potential for positive immigration reform but recognize that much lies ahead ...," said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a farmworker advocacy group.
But Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said immigration status adjustments for illegal aliens probably face an uphill battle in the House.
Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, Calif., disagreed, saying House Republicans got the message of the last election and are now more flexible.
Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said the bill has agriculture-specific provisions for unauthorized workers and recognizes the need for a new, workable program to ensure future agricultural workers.
"Lots of heavy lifting is ahead, but this is a positive," Regelbrugge said.
"I think there is general recognition that we need a more market-based (guestworker) program," said Kristi Boswell, American Farm Bureau director of congressional relations.
The Farm Bureau and ACIR are part of the new Agricultural Workforce Coalition, which wants ag-only status adjustments for experienced agricultural workers and contract and at-will employment opportunities for workers under a new guestworker visa system. AWC includes fruit, dairy, produce and nursery associations.
The AWC, Western Growers, United Fresh Produce Association and Farmworker Justice all issued statements praising the senators and their framework for the bill.
"Farmworker Justice is committed to immigration reform that empowers farmworkers to improve their inadequate wages and working conditions and bring an end to decades of poverty and abuse," Goldstein said.
Keys to that are strong and equal labor protections and a roadmap to citizenship, he said.
The new bill was announced Jan. 28 by four Democratic and four Republican senators. The Democrats are Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado. In addition to Graham and Rubio, the Republicans are Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The senators' bill summary lists the main components as:
* A "tough but fair" path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, contingent upon securing borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required.
* Reforming legal immigration to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen families. This is aimed at retaining the best and brightest immigrants, particularly upon college graduation.
* Create an effective employment verification system to prevent identity theft and end hiring of unauthorized workers.
* Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve workforce needs while protecting all workers.
Guestworker reform falls under the last point. The senators' elaboration of it calls for creation of a workable program to meet the needs of agriculture, including dairy.
Employers could hire immigrants if they can demonstrate they were unsuccessful in recruiting Americans and it would not displace American workers. More lower-skilled immigrants would be allowed to come when the U.S. economy is creating jobs and fewer when it is not creating jobs. There would be strong labor protections and successful workers who contributed to communities over many years would be able to earn green cards.
United Farm Workers of America National Vice President Erik Nicholson did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment. Nicholson has in the past called AWC's proposals an "appalling nonstarter" and a "wholesale gutting of farmworker protection," with no wage protections. He has faulted the group for not sticking with AgJOBS, a previous bill that sought reform of the H-2A foreign guestworker visa program.
But the senators recognize H-2A doesn't work, said Cunha, of the Nisei Farmers League, who has worked to get the bipartisan effort where it is.
Legislation will take time but chances of passage look better than the last attempt in 2007, Cunha said.
The bill will have a market-based guestworker provision but AWC will have to accept worker protection standards like private right of action, he said.
Fazio said private right of action -- that guestworkers will be allowed to sue under all U.S. laws instead of the guestworker contract only -- does not set well with many, including himself.
"But you don't get everything you want," he said. "If we get a good program where (farmers) don't have to pay all the housing and can pay regular Washington wages instead of a super (H-2A) wage, then I have no problem being for it. If we have to provide all that then the workers shouldn't have access to all these other laws."
Private right of action will be a bigger issue in the Southeast than Northwest, he said.
The concept or framework of the bill was announced Jan. 28 and actual portions are being introduced in stages, Fazio said.
Authorized work immigration status will be given most quickly to people who arrived in the U.S. before they were 16 years old, Fazio said. Farmworkers also will get swifter authorization, he said.
"I don't know why a person who picks fruit should be ahead of those cleaning bedpans," he said, adding he doesn't want that to hinder support.
It's encouraging, he said, that the bill is a new guestworker program and "not the same warmed-over AgJOBS. This is new and better for employers."