Posted on July 13, 2004

Immigration Bill Falters As Election Takes Center Stage

Emily Bazar and Michael Doyle,, July 12, 2004

Peaches are in season, and Leticia Lopez has just spent six hours doubled over a bin, picking out the misfits.

Lopez came to this small town north of Yuba City about a year ago, leaving five children — ages 3 to 17 — in Michoacán so she could earn money for them here. The 34-year-old widow finds it difficult and frightening without her family and without papers.

She would prefer to be here legally, but economic realities compel her to stay.

In Mexico, Lopez made about $15 a week cleaning houses and washing clothes. Here, she makes $6.75 an hour sorting peaches. So, like countless other farm workers, Lopez hopes Congress will approve a guest-worker program that would allow immigrants to live and work in the United States legally.

“I wish there would be an opportunity for me to bring my family with me,” Lopez said. “There needs to be some way for people to come into the country.”

But Lopez’s wishes are colliding with politics on Capitol Hill. Despite high hopes among proponents and furious maneuvering in recent days, the only immigration reform plan deemed to have a chance in Congress this year has stalled.

The measure, informally known as AgJOBS, would grant qualified agricultural workers and their families temporary legal status in the United States. Ultimately, participants could obtain permanent legal status upon completing additional farm work over the next three to six years.

The United Farm Workers estimates the legislation could affect roughly 500,000 farm workers and their family members nationwide, the largest concentration of whom live and work in California’s fertile Central Valley.

But that’s only if it passes.

“My personal assessment is that it’s highly unlikely the legislation will move this year,” said Rep. Cal Dooley, a Fresno-area Democrat who supports the bill. “It’s too polarizing . . . and I think the Republican leadership views it as too divisive in their own conference.”

Technically, the bill isn’t dead. With 63 on-the-record supporters in the Senate, it’s possible the Senate could pass the measure in the roughly 30 legislative days left in the session.

Even if it does, no House committee or subcommittee has held a hearing on the legislation in the 10 months since it was introduced.

The bill hit another roadblock Wednesday, when Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig sought to tack it onto an unrelated class-action lawsuit reform bill. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist fended off the effort.

“There are some who do not want immigration as an issue voted on this year,” Craig complained.

All of which marks a stunning comedown for the immigration-reform advocates who rolled out their hard-fought compromise proposal last September. Backed by dozens of groups, from the California Farm Bureau Federation to the UFW, AgJOBS was billed as the one immigration plan with enough support to pass a divided Congress.

“This is the first time in 40 years that I’ve ever seen that type of cohesiveness from groups,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, which represents about 1,000 growers from Kern County to Stockton.

Farmers want stability and reliability, and are tired of dealing with the problems associated with a largely undocumented work force, Cunha said.

But groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform believe there should be more raids and better enforcement of immigration laws, and are pleased that AgJOBS has been sped. Opponents consider the bill the first step toward a broad-based amnesty program that would give permanent legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

“There’s nothing to say that if we legalize all these illegal workers, they won’t simply be replaced by the next wave of illegal immigrants,” said FAIR’s Los Angeles-based spokesman Ira Mehlman.

President Bush seemed to embrace the notion of immigration reform in January, when he unveiled a proposal to offer temporary legal status to millions of immigrants, not limited to farm workers. To qualify, people would have to prove they have a legitimate job or job offer here.

“We must make our immigration laws more rational and more humane,” Bush said, “and I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihoods of American citizens.”

Since then, though, the White House follow-through has been negligible.

The administration never submitted formal legislative language, saying that would be up to Congress. And Bush himself has all but dropped the ic in his public talks.

The Bush proposal itself may have complicated passage for AgJOBS by rallying opponents against immigration reform and splitting coalitions among different approaches. The president’s plan, for example, wouldn’t provide guest workers with a path toward permanent legal residency.

“I think it’s a mistake to once again give (illegal immigrants) a shorter route to citizenship,” said Tracy Republican Rep. Richard Pombo. “I do believe we need a guest-worker program. I do not believe that the right way to do that is to take the people who came here illegally and give them a quick pass to legalization.”

Luis Elias, a 29-year-old Fresno County man who picks peaches, nectarines and grapes, says he will continue working in America whether or not AgJOBS passes because he needs to provide for his family. But its passage would make a difference in how often he gets to see them.

Elias left his wife and three children in Guerrero, Mexico, when he came here six years ago looking for work. He says he hasn’t seen them in three years because it has become so difficult — and dangerous — to cross the border back into the United States.

Elias felt a glimmer of hope when he learned about AgJOBS last year, and remains optimistic that it will pass so he can safely reunite with his loved ones.

“Three years is a long time not to see your family,” he said. “At least if I had legalization through AgJOBS, I would see them once a year.”

What the bill would do

* The AgJOBS bill would grant an estimated 500,000 agricultural workers and their families temporary legal status in the United States. In order to qualify, undocumented farm workers must have worked 100 days in any 12 consecutive months between March 1, 2002, and Aug. 31, 2003.

* Once qualified, they could travel abroad and legally re-enter the United States. They also could work to become legal permanent residents by performing at least 360 days of agricultural work during a six-year period starting on Sept. 1, 2003.

* Once farm workers earn permanent legal status, their spouses and minor children have it as well.