May 29, 2007
Senate Debates New Immigration Reforms, Including AgJOBS

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and officials of the Bush administration reached agreement on the elements of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, including the provisions for temporary workers for agriculture contained in AgJOBS.

The agreement came May 17, setting the stage for debate to start May 21 in the U.S. Senate -– and optimists were hoping the bill would pass that chamber before the Memorial Day recess.

The bipartisan package was assembled by senators spanning the political spectrum, from liberal Democrats, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, to conservative Republicans, such as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. But whether they can maintain the alliance and carry it to the House of Representatives is anybody’s guess. Farm interests will need to keep up the pressure (see Marketplace of Ideas, page 35).

A fact sheet from the White House summarizes the key provisions.

The proposal establishes a “true commitment to securing our borders,” provisions designed to win conservative support. Border security and worksite enforcement benchmarks must be met before a temporary worker program is implemented, according to the fact sheet. These benchmarks include construction of 370 miles of border fence, hiring 18,000 more border patrol agents, catching and returning those who cross the border illegally and creating an employment eligibility verification system to process all new hires.

While employers will be required to verify the work eligibility of all employees, all workers will be required to present stronger and more verifiable identification documents. Tough anti-fraud measures will be implemented and stiff penalties imposed on employers who break the law.

The Employment Eligibility Verification System will allow for real-time verification of employee photos and documents.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration will share “no-match” information to ensure that illegal immigrants cannot use the Social Security information of Americans to pose as legal workers.

Audits will serve as an additional check on employer compliance with the system.

To “relieve pressure on the border and provide a lawful channel to meet the needs of our economy,” the proposal creates a temporary worker program that “allows workers to enter the country to fill jobs that Americans are not doing.”

The temporary worker program:

• Requires U.S. employers to advertise the job in the United States at a competitive wage before hiring a temporary worker.

• Provides additional labor protections for temporary worker program participants.

• Allows temporary workers to enter the United States to work for three two-year terms, with at least a year spent outside the United States between each term.

• Sets a cap of 400,000 on the temporary worker program (adjustable in the future).

• Requires temporary workers who want to bring their immediate family to show that they have the means to support them and that they are covered by health insurance.

• Recognizes the unique needs of agriculture by establishing a separate seasonal agriculture component under the temporary worker program.

That program would provide temporary legal status for up to 1.5 million undocumented agricultural workers in a pilot project to allow those who continue to work on farms to apply for green card status.

Illegal immigrants who “come out of the shadows” will be given probationary status. To maintain their probationary status, they must pass a background check, remain employed and maintain a clean criminal record.

Illegal immigrants who fulfill their probationary requirements can apply for a Z card, which will enable them to live, work and travel freely. Z card holders will be required to pay a $1,000 fine, meet accelerated English and civics requirements, remain employed and renew their visa every four years.

Z card holders can apply for permanent resident status – a green card – but only after paying an additional $4,000 fine, applying “at the back of the line,” returning to their home country to file their green card application and demonstrating merit under the merit-based system.

The proposal declares that English is the language of the United States and calls on the government to preserve and enhance it, enacting accelerated English requirements for some immigrants.

The proposal establishes a new merit-based system to select future immigrants based on the skills and attributes they bring to the United States.

Under the merit system, future immigrants applying for permanent residency in the United States will be assigned points for skills, education, employment background and other attributes that “further our national interest.”

These skills include ability to speak English, education and training, job offers in a high-demand field, work experience in the United States, employer endorsement and family ties to the United States. But they also include ability to do jobs defined as “low skill but high demand,” jobs most Americans won’t do, such as harvesting agricultural produce and working in the hospitality industry.

“In place of the current system where nearly two-thirds of green cards are awarded to relatives of U.S. citizens, our immigration system will be reformed to better balance the importance of family connections with the economic needs of our country,” according to the fact sheet. This is a major change from the current family-ties structure, which critics say creates “chain migration.”

Visas for parents of U.S. citizens are capped, while green cards for siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and green card holders are eliminated. A new Parents Visitor visa would be created to assure family contacts are easy to maintain.

The Diversity Lottery Program, which grants 50,000 green cards per year through random chance, would be ended.


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