News/US: Farmworkers: Some lawmakers say bill smacks of 'indentured servitude'

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Subject: News/US: Farmworkers: Some lawmakers say bill smacks of 'indentured servitude'
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sun Oct 31 1999 - 14:08:20 EST


Farmworkers: Some lawmakers say bill smacks of 'indentured servitude'
By Jennifer Maddox, Scripps Howard News Service
Naples Daily News, October 28, 1999

WASHINGTON - Three senators reintroduced a controversial bill Wednesday
that would grant amnesty to all undocumented farm workers currently working
in the United States and place them on a national job registry for growers
to use when they are looking for help.

The bill died in the House last year, but it did not have the amnesty
provision.

"We believe this program is better for farmworkers," said Sen. Bob Graham,
D-Fla., who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oreg., and
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Of the 1.6 million farm workers in the United States, more than 600,000, or
nearly 38 percent, are undocumented, according to the General Accounting
Office. Growers support the bill because they can be assured of hiring
legitimate, documented workers through the national job bank.

"We should not have illegal workers. We should have a legal system," Smith
said.

Critics of the bill are passionate in their opposition, however. Among them
is the Labor Department, which would have to maintain the job registry. It
would be impossible to keep track of all legitimate workers because of
their transient nature, Labor officials have said.

And if growers cannot find someone through the job bank, the bill makes it
easier for them to legally import workers from other countries.

"That would lower wages and reduce the recruitment of U.S. workers," said
Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director for the Farmworker Justice Fund in
Washington.

House Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, also attacked
the bill, saying the so-called amnesty provision would create another
system of slavery. Under its provisions, a worker could not obtain legal
residence status until he has worked in U.S. agriculture jobs for 180 days
during each of five years within a seven-year period.

"Amnesty shackles aliens to indentured servitude," said Rep. Lamar Smith,
chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, which will have
jurisdiction over a House version of the bill that will be introduced in
the next two weeks. "This amnesty offer says that illegal agricultural
workers must remain employed at backbreaking labor for five years to get
their green cards. That is unconscionable."

"One hundred and eighty days - that's a huge number of days to find
agricultural work in this country. Until then, they are non-immigrants.
They are temporary farm workers. They get none of the protections (of
documented workers)," Goldstein said. Under those rules, he added, "It's
difficult to be eligible to get a green card. For some of these people, it
may be impossible."

The bill's sponsors brushed off the criticism. They pointed to provisions
that would have growers pay the requisite costs for housing and
transportation to the work site. They would also have to pay at least the
minimum wage, or slightly above the local prevailing wage.

And workers would not receive any sanction by getting on the job registry
before they receive amnesty, Craig said.

"We're trying to make this one simple and easy to access," Craig said.
"There is no reason for (workers) not to want to be a participant....We're
trying to break down those barriers."

In support of growers, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said the bill makes
their lives easier, because they know they can hire legitimate workers in a
timely way.

"Growers - they too feel abused. They have to comply with the regulations
and the (Immigration and Naturalization Service). The registry will relieve
a tremendous burden."

Melanie Orhant

morhant@igc.org
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