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A Smart Farm-Worker Bill

October 01, 2003

When conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, big farmers and union activists agree on something, it's worth noting. When their consensus concerns as complicated and freighted an issue as immigration reform, there's even greater reason to think something worthwhile is stirring. That's why S 1645 by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah) should be considered seriously by Congress.

At first glance, the bill seems unfair: It would make it possible for thousands of illegal farm workers nationwide to earn legal U.S. residency. But note that the key word is residency, not necessarily quick citizenship. The bill seeks to regularize the comings and goings of agricultural workers, at least half of whom are in the United States illegally.

This is not another sweeping, doomed-to-fail amnesty program. It is a plan that holds promise for how the United States can begin to fix its tattered immigration policies. Those who had been working in U.S. agriculture for more than three months before Aug. 31 this year would be granted temporary legal status. If they continued working in agriculture for 360 days over six years, they could become eligible for permanent residency.

The bill also would streamline procedures for growers to hire temporary guest workers from abroad. The current federal guest worker program has rarely been used in California because growers find it a costly, unreliable and cumbersome bureaucratic process that is unresponsive to the time-sensitive nature of growing produce. Too many growers skip the red tape by calling contractors that will fetch them as many workers as needed, even if those workers come illegally from across the border.

Under the proposed law, future guest workers would be allowed to work in the U.S. for only 10 months before being sent home.

The new proposal was introduced last week in the Senate. The bill is backed by representatives of agricultural business, farm workers and unions. They agree that unlike past, unsuccessful farm-worker initiatives, this offers fair, specific and practical steps.

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