Suzanne Gamboa, AP, Jan. 10, 2007
Backers of overhauling immigration rules began a congressional push Wednesday to give temporary legal status to up to 1.5 million illegal immigrant workers to provide a labor pool for U.S. agriculture.
The proposal is a recycled version of parts of a bill that stalled after passing the Senate last year. House Republicans blocked negotiations on the measure, sticking with a get-tough stand against illegal immigrants before the November elections.
Those wanting to liberalize immigration laws hope the combination of a Democratic majority in Congress, support from President Bush and a perceived backlash against anti-immigration rhetoric in the elections will help power the comprehensive immigration proposals.
‘The reality is Americans have come to rely on an undocumented migrant work force to harvest our crops,’ Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a news conference.
Under the bill, illegal immigrants who can show they have labored in agriculture for at least 150 work days for the past two years would become eligible for a ‘blue card’ bestowing temporary legal status. Their spouses and minor children also could get a blue card if they already live in the U.S.
People with these cards who work an additional three years, at least 150 days a year, or five years, at least 100 days a year, would be eligible for legal residency. But they first would have to pay a $500 fine, be up to date on taxes, have no record of committing crimes involving bodily injury or threat of serious bodily injury or have caused property damage of more than $500.
Opponents say immigrants provide cheap, exploitable labor to the industry and deflate wages for American employers. They also contend such workers become a drain on taxpayers because those workers, once eligible, turn to welfare, Medicaid and other social programs.
But proponents are getting support from growers who saw their crops left to waste in fields because of farm worker shortages last year.
‘If Congress doesn’t pass real reforms this year, we could see the apple industry outsourced to South America or China,’ Henggeler said.
The blue card proposal probably will be in broader immigration bills to be introduced in the House and Senate in late winter. Feinstein and the other lawmakers said they have enough votes to pass the bill separately and would do so if the broader bill does not advance.