People march in support of immigration reform at the Capitol. Senate negotiators… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Senators writing a landmark immigration bill broke a logjam between farmworker unions and growers Thursday, reaching a tentative agreement on the number of future agricultural visas and pay scales for foreign farmworkers.
Labor unions and agricultural industry leaders had been stuck for three weeks on how to legally bring foreign labor into the United States to pick crops and tend livestock at competitive wages. The issue, which is important to California and other farming states, became a major stumbling block in bipartisan efforts to craft a comprehensive immigration bill.
The most two contentious issues were solved, according to officials familiar with the closed-door talks, although they did not release details.
U.S. immigration law: Decades of debate
"We have a wage and cap agreement," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters.
Feinstein is not among the eight senators drafting the overall bill, but she has worked to help design a program to provide legal status to the estimated 500,000 foreign farmworkers in the country.
The eight senators overseeing the bill met Wednesday night and signed off on the outline, leaving staffers to work out final details. Senators were optimistic Thursday that a deal was close.
"All that's left is the drafting," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
If passed, the historic bill would expand legal immigration, ramp up border security, tighten sanctions against employers who hire people in the U.S. unlawfully, and open a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants who either entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.
Border security has been key to the negotiations, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that stopping 90% of those trying to sneak across the border, as the draft bill requires, wouldn't be difficult to achieve. He said six of the nine sectors on the Arizona border with Mexico already had 90% effective control.
"With technology, it should not be that hard" to seal the rest, McCain said.
Reform efforts got a boost from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is influential with Republican lawmakers. The chamber urged Congress to "take advantage of the unprecedented momentum" and pass an immigration bill this year.
Richard Simon in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.