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Bipartisan Immigration Reform Proposed

The plan would affect 500,000 farm workers, a slice of undocumented laborers in the U.S.

September 24, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday proposed an immigration reform that would allow an estimated 500,000 undocumented farm workers to become legal U.S. residents, a breakthrough for a movement that had stalled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

If enacted, the bipartisan plan would be one of the most significant steps to revise immigration law since Congress approved a sweeping amnesty for illegal immigrants in 1986. But the latest initiative narrowly targets about half a million farm workers -- a small percentage of the estimated 8 million to 10 million illegal immigrants here -- and is, therefore, less comprehensive than some of the proposals the United States and Mexico discussed in 2001, only days before terrorists hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

To qualify for temporary legal status, lawmakers said, workers would have to prove 100 days of agricultural employment in the 18-month period that ended Aug. 31 and meet certain other conditions. Then, to obtain a green card, which signifies permanent residence in the United States, they would have to show 360 days of additional farm work over the next six years.

There are no official tallies of how many seasonal workers in California's underground economy could benefit. But experts said many of those expected to enroll in such a program -- the people who toil in the fields to harvest fruits and vegetables -- either lived or worked in the state and were natives of Mexico or Central America.

Democrats have long sought to aid migrant workers. To win Republican backing, the bill also takes several steps to revise, and possibly expand, a guest-worker program that allows growers to import temporary labor from abroad. This program, viewed with skepticism by domestic labor leaders, is now of modest size and is used mainly in the Southeast.

The new legislation, embraced by both agricultural businesses and farm workers, stands a good chance of becoming law under a Republican president who has said that he wants to approach immigration "in a way that recognizes reality" and treats foreigners in the United States "with respect."

Nevertheless, President Bush has not yet taken a position on the proposal, which is sponsored 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).

Craig, a conservative who rarely teams up with the liberal Kennedy, said he had consulted with White House aides and the Senate GOP leadership and was confident that Bush would sign the bill if it reached his desk.

Citing government estimates that as much as half of the U.S. agricultural workforce lacks documentation, Craig said: "The senseless and inhumane deaths of farm workers being smuggled illegally into the United States are totally unacceptable. Those who survive to work in the fields are among the most vulnerable persons in this country, unable to assert the most basic legal rights and protections that we expect for all within our country. This situation never was acceptable. It has become intolerable."

While the bill has significant bipartisan support, it faces some determined foes in the House.

"I certainly can't tell you I can block it, but I can tell you I'll fight like crazy," said Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.), a prominent opponent of increased immigration.

Tancredo predicted that influential House Republicans would reject any measure perceived as rewarding lawbreakers. "Getting anything through that has an amnesty component is going to be tough," he said.

In response, advocates insisted that the bill did not offer amnesty. Instead, they called the legalization process an "earned adjustment." They said the Aug. 31 qualification deadline, since it has already passed, would deter new illegal immigration.

Berman, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee who has pushed for years to enact such a reform, said the bill would improve security by helping the government get a handle on who is living in the U.S.

"This is not only good for agriculture and good for farm workers, this is good for homeland security," Berman said. "Everybody pretends this isn't happening, but we all know that ... particularly in the West and California, a huge percentage of farm workers are undocumented." Many of them, he said, carry fake identification papers.

"But now they [would] have to apply, give their true identity. There's background checks on them; they get fingerprinted."

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