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Immigration reform: Farm-worker compromise brings bill a step closer to Senate floor

Farmer and labor groups are voicing support for a deal on farm workers, but it’s just one piece of the complicated effort by both political parties to craft an immigration reform bill this year.

A bipartisan band of US Senators has reached agreement on one of the central controversies of immigration reform – treatment of farm workers who currently work in the country illegally.

The compromise would allow some 336,000 non-citizens to receive new “blue card” status that allows them to work on farms and move eventually toward citizenship.

Farmer and labor groups are voicing support for the deal, but it’s just one piece of the complicated effort by both political parties to craft an immigration reform bill this year.

“The farmers and workers have come together to back this consensus proposal is an achievement that only weeks ago didn’t seem possible,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah said Friday as one of the Senate dealmakers.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, another leader in the talks, said in a joint news release (quoting several senators) that the agreement “includes three key provisions on farm worker wage levels, caps on agricultural guest worker visas and protections for U.S. workers.”

Details of the deal were not in the news release. According to news reports, citing sources familiar with the terms, the cap on farm worker visas would be set at 112,000 three-year visas per year, or about 336,000 people at any time.

The farm workers could apply for green cards after five years, faster than the time frame for most of some 11 million illegal immigrants under the coming Senate bill, according to a Politico article. Citizenship could follow.

Minimum wage rates for the work would be set nationally for six categories of farm work defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Los Angeles Times reported.

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The deal on farm workers is just one piece of the reform-bill puzzle, but it symbolizes the larger push for a bargain on one of America’s most controversial social issues.

On a practical level, the move for immigration reform boils down to political bargaining among a few key lawmakers from both parties – in this case Hatch, Feinstein, & Co.

The Monitor’s congressional correspondent, David Grant, explored this issue in a cover story this week.

When immigration legislation comes to a vote in the Republican-led House, a central question will be how much conservative sentiment has changed due to last fall’s election results. In the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection win and Republicans’ failure to take control of the Senate, one of the most often-cited lessons from the outcome was that Republicans need to do more to attract Hispanic voters.

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Reform contains many elements, ranging from border security to policies toward immigrants who work in high-tech industries or who seek graduate degrees.

Senator Hatch emphasized that, for his part, getting one piece in place doesn’t guarantee his “yes” vote on an eventual bill being crafted by the so-called “gang of eight” in the Senate.

“While I understand this [farm-worker provision] will be included in the Gang of 8 proposal, no one should assume that I’m backing their overall plan,” Hatch said in his statement.

United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez said the labor group is “very pleased” by the compromise.

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“Under the proposed new immigration process, farm workers would be able to work in the fields without fear of getting deported immediately and will be able to reunite with their families in a relatively short period of time,” he said. Workers would have “the right to earn a green card in the future by continuing to work in agriculture.”