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Senate passes immigration reform

Senate passes comprehensive immigration reform on a 68-32 vote. Possibility of similar package passing in the House dim. How Senate bill would deal with farm workers explored.

After several rounds of arm-twisting and horse-trading in order to secure votes, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform 68 to 32 on Thursday (June 27). While proponents are upbeat about the Senate legislation, chances for reform in the House are shaky at best.

The soft support for House leadership among Republicans was on full display when a new farm bill failed to pass earlier this month. That does not bode well for the GOP leadership’s ability to whip enough votes to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

However, agriculture groups heralded the Senate legislation, which includes $46 billion to improve border security that would:

  • Make current undocumented farm workers eligible to obtain legal status through a “Blue Card” program if they remain in agriculture jobs.
  • Workers who held agriculture jobs prior to Dec. 31, 2012, for at least 100 days or 575 hours are eligible for Blue Card status.
  • After a minimum of five years, Blue Card workers without criminal records – and having paid back taxes and a fine -- will be eligible to apply for a Green Card.
  • A visa cap would be mandated for the new USDA-administered worker program. The Secretary of Agriculture would have the ability to modify the cap as employers’ needs shift.
  • The USDA-administered agricultural guest worker program would offer an “at will” option (allowing workers to work for authorized agricultural employers under a three-year visa) and a “contract-based” option (allowing workers to sign a contract with an authorized employer for a specific amount of work, also under a three year visa). Both options would require the employer to provide housing or a housing allowance and agreed-upon wage.

Those against the legislation included Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee.“The Senate bill is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “It represents a headlong rush to offer a path toward citizenship for those here illegally, with more promises that illegal crossings on the Southwest border might finally end. For all its reported benefits, the Congressional Budget Office also reported that it will increase unemployment, suppress wages and only reduce illegal crossings by 25 percent.”

Not surprisingly, President Obama disagreed. “If enacted, the Senate bill would establish the most aggressive border security plan in our history,” he said. “It would offer a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million individuals who are in this country illegally -- a pathway that includes passing a background check, learning English, paying taxes and a penalty, and then going to the back of the line behind everyone who’s playing by the rules and trying to come here legally. It would modernize the legal immigration system so that it once again reflects our values as a nation and addresses the urgent needs of our time. And it would provide a big boost to our recovery, by shrinking our deficits and growing our economy.”

The Senate bill “is the first step in reforming our broken immigration system and ensuring agriculture has access to a stable and legal workforce,” said Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation president. “We look forward to working with members in the House of Representative to pass responsible immigration reform legislation that includes an earned adjustment for experienced undocumented agricultural workers and a new, flexible guest worker program. It is critical that both chambers pass legislation that can be reconciled in conference and signed into law.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said millions of farm workers currently “live in the shadows.” For them, the Senate bill “will provide an appropriate opportunity to earn legal status by contributing to America's agricultural economy. In addition to being a strongly pro-agriculture bill, the Senate plan would grow the U.S. economy, strengthen the Social Security system and reduce our deficit.”

Vilsack then called on the House to quickly pass immigration reform itself. That call is unlikely to be heeded.

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