WASHINGTON — The Senate, continuing work Tuesday on a comprehensive bill to revamp the nation's immigration laws, reversed its earlier stand and approved an amendment that would make it possible for growers of perishable crops to quickly obtain large numbers of legal foreign workers at harvest time.
Voting 51 to 44, the Senate overturned its narrow rejection last week of a similar proposal by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who had opposed the initial amendment, voted against Wilson's amendment Tuesday as well.
Wilson persuaded five opponents to switch their votes Tuesday when he added a provision to limit the number of foreign workers under the program to 350,000 at any one time. After three years, the attorney general could adjust the number to conform with the demand for labor.
The financial survival of the nation's 53,000 growers of perishable fruits and vegetables--most of whom operate in California and other Western states--could hinge upon passage of the amendment, Wilson insisted.
But Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), the bill's sponsor and the chief opponent of Wilson's amendment, argued that the amendment would provide far more foreign workers than Western farmers need. He said the issue is "not survival, but greed." The amendment, Simpson warned, would mean that farm workers would face "exploitation deluxe, the status quo."
Under the bill, employers could be fined up to $10,000 per offense for repeatedly hiring illegal aliens--a fearsome prospect for Western farmers, who are estimated to rely upon illegal immigration to provide more than half their work force.
Simpson attempted to meet their demands by streamlining the existing program for bringing in foreign seasonal farm labor.
However, Western farmers said it still would be too cumbersome to be of much use in harvesting their unpredictable and fragile crops, because it would require them to give 65 days' notice of their needs under normal conditions, or 72 hours under emergency circumstances. It also would allow workers to remain in this country only a short time after they completed the jobs for which they were hired.
"There's no way to satisfy the perishable fruit growers," Simpson said. Western agriculture's lobbying effort, he said, was led by "heavy hitters, and they spend big bucks, and they're quite effective, thank you."
Wilson's original amendment would have allowed the attorney general to admit an unlimited number of foreigners, based upon his own determination of how many were needed. These workers then would be allowed to travel from job to job for up to nine months, making them available to farmers almost instantly.
The measure, which failed 50 to 48 last week, had been vigorously opposed by organized labor and Latino groups, which said it was merely a means by which growers could exploit foreign laborers and deny jobs to U.S. citizens who would demand higher pay and better working conditions.
Wilson noted that his amendment requires farmers to seek domestic workers before they hire foreign farm labor and to provide housing allowances, insurance and other benefits. But opponents predicted that farmers would pay little more than lip service to these stipulations.
"The claim that this program doesn't displace U.S. farm workers and protects workers' rights is insulting and disgusting," said Arnoldo S. Torres, a lobbyist for the Arizona Farmworkers Union.
Offer of Amnesty
The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to complete action today on the immigration bill, which also would offer amnesty and eventual U.S. citizenship to illegal aliens who have lived in this country continuously since 1980.
Similar versions of the bill have passed the Senate by 4-1 margins in each of the last two congressional sessions but have faced tougher going in the solidly Democratic House. Last year the bill passed the House by a five-vote margin, only to die in the closing hours of the congressional session when House and Senate negotiators were unable to work out their differences.
Although last year's House bill contained an agricultural-worker provision similar to that passed by the Senate on Tuesday, its prospects in the House this year are uncertain. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) vigorously opposes such a large program of importing foreign laborers and has vowed to fight it.
Among the amendments expected to pass today is one by Wilson that would require the federal government to pay states $3 billion over six years toward their costs of providing welfare and other government benefits to aliens who are given legal status under the bill.
Although this is higher than the $1.8 billion over three years envisioned in the bill before the Senate, it is less generous than the 100% reimbursement envisioned under the bill now being considered by the House Judiciary Committee.