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Senate leaves farmer-guest worker debate in limbo

The Senate left for its Easter recess without passing an immigration reform bill, leaving farmers and documented and undocumented farm workers from other countries in limbo for several more weeks or months.

For a little while, it appeared Senate leaders had reached a compromise that would have granted citizenship to illegal immigrants and established an expanded temporary guest worker program to help farmers and other businessmen while tightening U.S. border security.

But the day after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced it on April 6, the agreement – like the U.S.-Mexico border – turned into a sieve with Democrats and Republicans slipping away while accusing each other of undermining it to gain an advantage in this fall’s mid-term elections.

“I think politics got in front of the policy on this issue,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who helped draft the proposal the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out to the floor of the Senate on March 27.

The weekend after the Senate went into recess on April 7, Hispanics marched in rallies across the country, protesting provisions of the compromise proposal that would have forced many illegals to return to the U.S. border and apply for readmission to the country.

On Monday, April 10, an estimated 180,000 immigrants and supporters attended a “national day of action” on the Washington Mall, an event that was repeated by 100,000 persons each in New York and Phoenix, 50,000 each in Atlanta and Houston and smaller crowds in several other cities.

Many reservations

Although Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have been among the most visible supporters of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill, other senators from both sides of the aisle expressed reservations about it and two other proposals.

Several Republicans, including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, have objected to what they consider to be granting amnesty to many of the estimated 11.5 million, mostly Hispanic aliens who are now believed to live in the United States.

But Chambliss has also argued for an expanded guest worker program with stronger enforcement of the rules governing the employment of such workers.

In a speech during the debate on the proposals, Chambliss urged his colleagues to distinguish between true temporary guest worker programs and proposals “that will lead a guest worker down a new path to citizenship.

“I don’t think it’s fair to call the legislation passed by the Judiciary Committee a guest worker bill,” he said. “It is more appropriately named a citizen-worker bill because it provides a clear new path to citizenship for aliens who are currently in the United States illegally.”

Chambliss said he also had concerns about the new “blue card” program included in the Judiciary Committee proposal, about the length of time aliens would have to work in agriculture to justify their entry into the United States and what he called preferential treatment for operators who had hired illegal workers over those who had used the current H-2A guest worker program.

Amendments rejected

As the Senate approached its scheduled recess date, Chambliss and other senators attempted to offer amendments to the immigration legislation, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said those amendments would violate the spirit of the compromise.

Faced with Reid’s objections and a series of votes in which the Senate refused to end debate on the compromise and then on a Republican proposal on tighter border controls, the issue was set aside.

“There has been one huge problem, and that problem has been created by the Democratic leadership,” said Sen. Frist after Reid moved to limit the number of amendments that could be considered.

Democrats, in turn, said Frist had agreed to the compromise proposal and then couldn’t persuade other key Republicans to fully support it.

Chambliss attempted to amend the compromise bill by requiring that H-2A agricultural workers be paid the local prevailing wage rather than averaging together the wages of different skill levels from different states.

“Moving from an Adverse Effect Wage Rate requirement to a prevailing wage would allow the use of a more localized, occupation-specific, competitive wage when growers access legal workers,” he said. But that and other amendments were blocked from consideration.

If the Senate eventually passes guest worker language – and no one was predicting when the Senate would take up the legislation again – it will have to be reconciled with the House immigration reform bill, which contains no such provisions.

The Senate is scheduled to return from its Easter recess on April 25.

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