Agriculture provisions of comprehensive immigration legislation should come through upcoming Senate hearings intact, industry leaders said.
“I think the agricultural components should be relatively noncontroversial because there was a stakeholder agreement,” said Ken Barbic, senior director for federal government affairs for the Washington, D.C., office of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.
Senate Judiciary Committee consideration of S. 744 called the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” begins May 9, possibly continuing as late as the week of May 20, Barbic said. More than 300 amendments were offered to the Senate bill by May 8.
Other provisions of the bill — including border security, cost and low-skilled worker visa program — will likely find much more scrutiny than the agriculture provisions, Barbic said.
After debate and amendments are offered, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to approve the legislation, Barbic said. The full Senate could debate and vote on the legislation in June, Barbic said.
Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said the critical battles could take place when the full Senate considers the bill.
“We will have to rally the grass roots to get senators to support the deal we put together,” he said May 8.
The Senate’s reform legislation creates a “blue card” system for the estimated 1.2 million undocumented foreign workers in the agricultural sector. That program would continue for five years. Under the plan, undocumented employees will be required to pay a penalty of $100 and prove they worked in the agriculture sector before Dec. 31, 2012, to be able to receive a blue card.
Under the legislation’s agricultural guest worker program, 112,000 new workers could gain legal entry during each of the first three years of the program. In years four and five, the number would be capped at a cumulative total of 337,000. After the fifth year the U.S. Department of Agriculture would set a cap based on the needs of U.S. producers.
Industry advocates are optimistic about a favorable result in the Senate, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president for Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers. “We’re still confident that the bipartisan coalition in the Senate is going to honor the hard-fought and well thought-out ag (provisions).” Gasperini said.
A strong vote in the Senate, with 70 to 75 members voting for the bill, could make a difference to comprehensive legislation in the House, Barbic said.
“The more senators you see on the Republican side supporting (the legislation), the better chance there will be for the House to take up immigration (reform),” he said.
On the other hand, if the legislation passes by a bare minimum in the Senate, Barbic said it will be difficult to retain momentum for immigration reform in the House.