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Immigration Bill Ready for Senate Debate

DC Dialogue

Political differences exist between Senate and House immigration approaches but agriculture could be engine for final passage.

Published on: May 31, 2013

After several days of markup, the Senate Judiciary Committee completed work on its comprehensive immigration reform bill ahead of the Memorial Day recess, including a monumental compromise agreed upon between farm workers and the ag industry which includes forming a new ag visa program and path to citizenship for an estimated 1.4 million current undocumented farm workers.

The 13-5 approval out of committee sets the stage for Senate action expected to last for most of June, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he wants to clear as much time as needed. Once the farm bill is wrapped up, immigration will be up next, most likely starting the week of June 10.

60 votes won't be easy

Reid said this week he believed that the so-called “gang of eight” immigration bill has a strong chance of passage on the Senate floor. He predicted he can get eight Republican votes and nearly all Democratic members.

“I think we have 60 votes. Remember, we start out at 55 Democrats. I think the most I’ll lose is two or three. Let’s say I wind up with 52 Democrats. I only need eight Republicans, and I already have four, so that should be pretty easy,” Reid said for a taping for “To the Point” and reported in the Las Vegas Sun on Wednesday.

The bill must cross a 60 vote threshold to avoid a filibuster. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that he would like to support the bill but wants some amendments first. Sen. Robert Menendez, D., N.J., one of the “gang of eight” that authored the bill, said in a Univision interview that not enough votes were in place yet to break a potential filibuster.

An unnamed aide to Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told The Washington Post that the senator believes the group has more work to do to get to 60 votes.

Ag positioned to be the engine

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the Farm Bureau , explained that she expects a lot of debate and discussion on the full Senate floor, but she's hopeful the debate and rhetoric will be limited, while still allowing for senators to fully vet ideas such as was done in the committee.

Although over 300 amendments were filed, only half of them received an actual vote, Boswell noted. Overall, the "delicate" agreement was left intact between the United Farm Workers and major grower associations.

Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chair, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president for government relations at the American Nursery & Landscape Assn., said certainly challenges on the floor are likely.

"But ag is well-positioned to be an engine rather than an anchor that drags movement of the bill forward," Regelbrugge said. "At the end of the day, we need to remind Congress again and again that this is fundamentally an economic issue, a U.S. competitiveness issue."

Boswell said two amendments that could come up on the floor relates to family members of those holding specific working visas, which Farm Bureau supports, but "has to balance the politics of that," she said.

Determining the best way to ensure identification is also a hot topic, whether through finger printing, Social Security cards, or some other means. Those in the ag industry don't want to see excessive additional costs passed on to farmers, but also realize it's important to ensure technology stays up to pace, she said.

Bob Stallman, Farm Bureau president, added the bill helps ensure an adequate supply of farm labor but also will provide an increased level of surveillance of high-risk areas along our borders. "We know that one of the best ways to improve border security is to create a legal, workable way for farm workers to enter our country. If we do not have to waste resources locking up lettuce harvesters, we can focus on keeping those with criminal intentions out of our country," Stallman said.

United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez, who has been integral in helping forge the compromise between farm workers and the industry, said under the proposal farm workers would be able to work in the fields without fear of getting deported immediately and can be reunited with their families in a relatively short period of time. The bill would give professional farm workers temporary legal status and the right to earn a green card in the future by continuing to work in agriculture.

House work

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing May 22 to evaluate the Senate's proposal and also look to see whether the proposed legislation prevents past history from repeating itself. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.).

A "Gang of 8" on the House side has also been working on its own comprehensive bill. Boswell explained she's optimistic the group will release a more thorough language proposal after Memorial Day. Members of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition indicate ag interests continue to be shared, and similar agricultural provisions included in the Senate bill likely will surface in the comprehensive House bill. 

Goodlatte has proposed an individual bill addressing the ag guestworker revamp, and his bill allows for food manufacturers to apply for the guestworker program.

In the Senate bill food manufacturers are not included in the new ag visa programs, however, Regelbrugge said their interests are addressed in two places--the revisions to the H2b program when work is seasonal, and in the new W visa program that provides 3 year visas for workers in "lesser skill" non-Ag settings.  

Boswell explained the inclusion of food manufacturers could potentially impact the cap on allowed ag visas spelled out in the Senate version.