News/US: New push for a 'guest-worker' bill

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Subject: News/US: New push for a 'guest-worker' bill
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sat Oct 02 1999 - 15:10:36 EDT


New push for a 'guest-worker' bill
Proposal to focus on those already in U.S.
By Michael Doyle
Sacramento Bee, September 28, 1999

WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants now tending Central
Valley fields could secure legal status under a plan that will seek the
congressional fast track as early as Thursday.

In their latest bid for a foreign guest worker program, growers and their
congressional allies have found a new spin on an old -- and for decades
unsuccessful -- concept.

The basic idea is to grant temporary visas to farm workers now living
illegally in the United States; in time, those farm workers could claim
permanent green cards and, eventually, citizenship.

"Once and for all, farmers would be able to have a reliable supply of
labor," Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League,
said Monday, adding that "most of the workers just want a work visa, they
don't want to live here permanently."

By tweaking past guest worker proposals to provide legal status to illegal
workers, the growers hope to win over congressional skeptics. In a related
move, the growers hired as a new lobbyist a former official with the
National Immigration Forum, one who enjoys good relations with the
immigrant groups long opposed to guest worker plans.

Those immigrant advocate groups have previously joined the Clinton
administration in fighting guest worker proposals that crop up almost every
year. Though the White House has talked with farmers about the proposed
program, skepticism remains.

"If a bill is introduced, we'll look at it," a Labor Department official
said, speaking on condition of anonymity, but "the president is not going
to sign any legislation that increases illegal immigration or undermines
wages or working conditions."

Influential Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., likewise has not publicly
embraced the proposal, though she, too, has kept the door open to farmers.
The guest worker plan is backed by some Valley lawmakers, including Rep.
George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and others are listening.

"I think this bill actually has some merit, because it's talking about farm
workers who are already here," said Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Tulare County. "This
might have the components of a compromise that might bring everyone together."

The last time a similar proposal reached the House floor, in 1996, it was
defeated on a 242-180 vote.

Last year, the Senate, following quick debate, approved an alternative
guest worker plan, but it died in the face of presidential veto threats.
Since then, groups such as the Nisei Farmers League and National Council of
Agricultural Employers have tried to come up with something that would work.

"We've opened the door to work with everybody, from church groups to
advocacy groups," Cunha said. "The industry went to the greatest extent
possible to work with other groups."

The new plan remains subject to change, but essentially would cover illegal
immigrants who have worked in agriculture at least six months out of the
past year.

As many as 600,000 illegal immigrants are believed to work on farms. Under
the proposed law, the farm workers could apply for temporary visas good for
five years, during which time they would have to keep working in
agriculture at least six months a year.

The proposal, being groomed for Senate introduction by Florida Democrat Bob
Graham and others, also would streamline the Labor Department's
much-criticized H-2A program. Each year, the program brings in about 7,000
foreign shepherds, tobacco and sugar cane pickers and others.

"I think it's the reintroduction of indentured servitude in America," said
Bruce Goldstein of the Farmworker Justice Fund.

"Every organization we've talked to finds these proposals totally anathema."

Independent groups that have analyzed the farm labor market, including the
bipartisan Commission on Agricultural Workers and the more recent
Commission on Immigration Reform, consistently have recommended against a
guest worker program, saying it is unnecessary.

Also weakening the farmers' chances: congressional resistance recently
forced California's high-tech companies to shelve their plans for bringing
in more foreign workers. The chairman of the House immigration subcommittee
opposes guest worker plans, even though House Speaker Dennis Hastert
represents an Illinois district where nursery owners favor the idea.

With only about a month left for Congress to act, farm-friendly lawmakers
have two tacks from which to choose.

One is to fold the guest worker plan into one of the must-pass spending
bills that keep the federal government running; this was the approach last
tried in the Senate. The other is to try to speedily move stand-alone
legislation.

"We're hoping it's this year," Cunha said.

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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