The way South Texas onion grower Bruce Frasier sees it, the immigration bill that passed the Senate on Thursday is a hard-fought compromise with immigration rights groups.
Farmers get guarantees that a pool of workers will stay on as they earn legal status. Once that status qualifies those workers for other jobs, there's a "workable" guest worker program to replace them in the fields.
But after a recent trip to Washington, he fears the majority of Republicans controlling the House of Representatives will bow to constituents who see the plan as amnesty for some 11 million low-skilled workers, a repeat of the 1986 measure that resulted in millions of Green Cards but failed to stop illegal immigration.
"We just hope something gets out of the House. We could maybe hash some of these issues out," Frasier said. "The problem is the Senate may be more focused on the overall picture and the House worries about getting re-elected in their district."
The Democratic-controlled Senate bill's provisions for agriculture workers include a "blue card" that would allow currently undocumented field workers to get on a five-year path to legal permanent residence. It also includes two types of agricultural "W" visas, one for temporary contract workers and another for at-will workers who'd be freer to move from harvest to harvest.
Within a year, the new visas would phase out the existing H-2A farm worker visa, which is underutilized because farmers find it cumbersome.
The legislation also would create "W" visas for low-skilled nonagricultural workers. It also would nearly triple the number of H-B1 visas for the high-skilled, highly educated workers that are in demand, especially by the tech industry.
"It's quite a system," said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, a group that favors reduced immigration. "But I'm sort of losing my interest in getting too much detail into it because I know this bill is never going to become law."
Speaker John Boehner has vowed the Senate bill won't clear the House.
"I think the House is going in a little bit different direction," said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. "It appears that the House judiciary is going to pass three different bills -- one bill dealing with guest workers, a bill dealing with the status of people that are here, and then a bill dealing with border security.
"The third and the hardest to pass will be the status (bill)," he said. "The Senate bill has eventually got citizenship in it. The House bill in all likelihood will not have citizenship in it."
The nonagricultural "W" visa would help secure a supply of temporary workers to fill other low-skill jobs, said Bob Sakaniwa, associate director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Employers ranging from meat-packing plants to nursing homes to amusement parks could seek the visas.
"I think that was something that was missing in the 1986 effort, and that is what we call 'future flow,' a way to bring in lesser skilled workers who are nonetheless needed in a growing economy," he said. "Otherwise, in the next big economic boom, there's still going to be an attraction for people to come work in the U.S., and unless they have a legitimate way to get here, they're going to get here one way or another."
Negotiations took place over several months and were headed by Democrat Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Michael Bennet and Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Orrin Hatch, the United Farm Workers, and 12 growers' coalitions, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.
"Our hope is that the agricultural industry will look for ways to continue to encourage and incentivize the current workforce," he said. "There's always things that you give up, but in the end we think it's a fair deal for both the agricultural industry as well as for farm workers here in the United States."
AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said sacrifices already had been made to secure victory for the Senate bill.
Amendments before the final passage tied immigration status for millions to some $38 billion in border security measures, he said, such as adding more border fencing and doubling the ranks of the Border Patrol.
"Seven hundred miles of border fencing is not something that aspiring citizens can control ... But all of a sudden their roadmap to citizenship is contingent on whether or not Congress does these things," he said.
"We're worried about the trajectory," he said. "We're trying to signal that the Election Day message of Nov. 6, 2012 should continue to guide our politicians and that message was a roadmap to citizenship. ... Voters weren't voting for H1-B visa expansions for Facebook."
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