Tom Roach

Tom Roach, a Pasco, Wash., immigration attorney, at the Washington Growers League annual meeting, Feb. 20.

YAKIMA, Wash. — A new Democratic bill that would give legal status to illegal immigrant farmworkers may have a better chance of passing Congress and being signed by President Donald Trump than people might think, a Pasco immigration attorney says.

The Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019, H.R. 641, was introduced Jan. 17, by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., with a Senate companion bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

It can pass the House and probably the Senate, which passed similar legislation in 2007 and 2013, Tom Roach, a Pasco immigration attorney, told some 55 people at the Feb. 20 Washington Growers League annual meeting at the Yakima Convention Center.

“Ronald Reagan was president the last time amnesty passed. That could motivate Trump. He wants to be like Ronald Reagan,” Roach said.

But this bill really isn’t amnesty because it includes a $400 fine and a $100 penalty, Roach said.

Republicans would “dig their heels” in against it if Hillary Clinton were president but may be more inclined to go along under Trump, Roach reasoned.

Trump wants a border wall, deportation of bad criminals and is open to legal status for the rest, he said.

Roach said he thought similar legislation would pass in 2007 and 2017 because both times it passed the Senate and was favored by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But the measures died in the Republican House.

While not as optimistic as those times, Roach said it might have a better chance than people think.

When H.R. 641 was introduced, the National Council of Agricultural Employers, Western Growers, Washington State Tree Fruit Association and the Washington farm labor association WAFLA all said it needs a reform or replacement of the H-2A-visa guestworker program to ensure an adequate number of workers as domestic workers retire. Without that it won’t pass the Senate, Leon Sequeira, a Kentucky labor attorney, has said.

Unions generally oppose guestworker programs so Democrats have not been  supportive of them.

H.R. 641, called the blue card bill, would grant eight-year work status to people who worked 100 days in agriculture in the past two years, have no felony convictions or three or more misdemeanors, and who pay the $400 fine and $100 penalty, Roach said. Recipients could apply for a green card (permanent resident status) after working in agriculture on a blue card for five years.

Blue cards would include people working in fields, dairy, poultry, food packing and food processing. Visitation to country-of-origin and re-entry would be allowed. Employers would be required to provide employment records to applicants to help them apply. Employers would not be liable for civil or criminal penalties while continuing to employ applicants.

Mandatory E-verify, electronic verification of employment eligibility, would follow, Roach said.

“The $400 fine is pretty cheap compared to my three years in the service to remain legal,” Robert Allen, a Naches Heights apple and pear grower, commented in response to Roche’s talk.

Allen said he was referring being drafted into military service during the Vietnam War.

“I would like to see them do military or some sort of public service,” he said.

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