News/US: Farm Worker Amnesty Measure To Be Introduced

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Subject: News/US: Farm Worker Amnesty Measure To Be Introduced
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Wed Nov 03 1999 - 23:08:32 EST


Farm Worker Amnesty Measure To Be Introduced
+Congress: Bipartisan Bill That Would Grant Legal Status To Undocumented
Immigrants Is Backed By Growers, Who Face Labor Shortages.
Nancy Cleeland
Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1999

In an indication of how far and fast immigration politics have changed,
three senators today plan to introduce a bipartisan bill sought by growers
that would offer a form of amnesty to many thousands of undocumented farm
workers and expand the guest worker program.

The bill, to be introduced by Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Gordon Smith
(R-Ore.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho), would grant immediate legal status to
all undocumented immigrants who could show they had worked in agriculture
for at least 150 days in the last year--estimated by congressional sources
at 500,000.

But the workers would be required to remain in agriculture for an
additional five years before they could obtain permanent legal status, a
highly controversial provision that has evoked opposition by Latino groups.

The bill also would create a registry of legal domestic workers available
to growers and only after they exhaust that supply could they bring in
foreign workers. And it would allow growers to provide those guest workers
with housing "vouchers" rather than actual housing, as the current law
requires.

California growers, who concede that at least half and possibly 70% of
their workers are undocumented, have lobbied heavily for the bill in recent
months. As many as 500,000 farm workers are employed in the state during
peak harvest season.

But unlike previous attempts at guest worker reform, this proposed
legislation has strong backing from growers across the country--a
reflection of the tight labor market that is pulling workers into more
stable jobs.

"We're pleased that finally we'll have a chance to debate a bill that
addresses what we think everyone should see is a problem," said Jack King,
national affairs director for the California Farm Bureau. "The question is
how quickly we can get it to a vote. We're still hoping for this fall, but
that could be tricky."

By including the legalization provision, or "earned amnesty," growers had
hoped to win over immigrant rights advocates. They also hired Rick Swartz,
an immigration proponent and founder of the Washington-based National
Immigration Forum, to reach out to congressional opponents of more liberal
guest worker laws. But that attempt has met with little success so far, and
Schwartz is no longer on the payroll of the National Council of
Agricultural Employers.

Several immigrant and farm worker advocates--including the United Farm
Workers and the Southwest Voter Registration Project--vowed to oppose any
attempt to expand the current guest worker program, which has rarely if
ever been used in California. Dolores Huerta of the UFW characterized the
earned amnesty provision as "indentured servitude" and called for a blanket
amnesty for all undocumented workers.

Huerta and other farm worker advocates also pointed to abuses that were
rampant during more than two decades of the guest worker program started
during World War II that became known as the Bracero program.

In an attempt to win over those interests, the senators planned to
introduce a separate bill that contained only the earned amnesty provision.
Growers said they would not back any legislation that did not reform the
guest worker program.

"We've got to have both or we're dead," said Manuel Cunha, director of the
Nisei Farmers League in Fresno.

A sweeping immigration reform law passed in 1986 provided amnesty for
undocumented immigrants who could prove they had been in the United States
continually for at least six years.

After intense lobbying by California growers, the time was shortened for
agricultural workers. Critics said that left the agricultural component
open to widespread fraud. More than 1 million workers qualified.

Just a few years ago, any mention of another amnesty program would have
been ridiculed in Washington, but since then there has been a dramatic
turnaround in the economy, and labor is at a premium. King said there were
"spotty" shortages of farm labor in California that led to some crop loss,
and he expects it will be worse next year.

The political climate also has changed dramatically, with Latinos taking on
an increasingly important voice in electoral politics, particularly in
California. A poll of Latino voters in California and Texas this last
summer showed overwhelming support--about 87%--for a new amnesty, said
Antonio Gonzalez, director of the Southwest Voter project, which conducted
the poll.

Melanie Orhant

morhant@igc.org
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