Following an agreement by President Bush and his Mexican counterpart to renew long-stalled immigration talks, momentum has surged in Congress for a bill to help an estimated 500,000 undocumented farm workers gain legal residency in the United States.
The bill, which would also expand a foreign guest-worker program that agricultural businesses covet, is gaining crucial bipartisan support. Endorsements came this week from the second-ranking Senate Republican and both the GOP chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I just want to do what's right," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the Judiciary Committee chairman, a central player in all immigration legislation. Hatch said the bill would "help our neighbors to the south" and vulnerable immigrants who perform "back-breaking hard work" in U.S. farm fields.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) also pitched the bill directly to Bush at a White House breakfast this week. Afterward, she would not describe the president's reaction. White House officials have not commented publicly.
But Bush signaled a new willingness to deal on immigration in his Oct. 20 meeting in Thailand with Mexican President Vicente Fox. The two presidents agreed to restart negotiations shelved after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, exposed security lapses connected with foreign visitors to the United States.
Pelosi said Friday that top Republicans in the House and Senate were supporting the farm-worker legislation and that passage could come as early as this year. "I think all they have to do is take it up in the Senate and send it over to the House," Pelosi said.
The bill, addressing the status of a fraction of more than 8 million illegal immigrants in this country, is part of a broader immigration and border-security agenda developing between Mexico and the United States. It must overcome criticism in Congress from advocates of tighter immigration controls, who decry any measure that they say rewards lawbreakers.
But the bill is a priority for Mexico because many of the immigrants who could benefit are Mexican nationals who form the backbone of an underground economy in California and other states. In a speech here to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mexican Ambassador Juan Jose Bremer said that the Mexican government was following the bill with "great interest" and that its "provisions and effects would certainly be very positive" for Mexican farm workers.
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said he expected U.S. and Mexican Cabinet officials to discuss the bill in talks this month in Washington. "This is the only immigrant-worker solution that is ready to become law any time soon," Craig said.
Pleasing unions and Democrats, the bill aims to give undocumented farm workers a pathway to earning coveted "green cards" that the government issues to foreigners who become permanent U.S. residents. It would allow undocumented immigrants who worked on U.S. farms for at least 100 days during the 18-month period before Sept. 1 to acquire temporary legal status, protecting them and their spouses and children from deportation. To qualify for a green card, the farm workers would then have to work a minimum amount on U.S. farms over the next three to six years.
Advocates call the process "earned adjustment." They deny the label critics give it: "amnesty."
A portion of the bill that would please growers and Republicans aims to revise a guest-worker program, known in the immigration law as H-2A, that allows growers to import seasonal foreign labor. The program, which requires workers to leave the country after harvests are finished, is now used modestly in the Southeastern United States. Growers hope to expand its use. The bill would cut red tape, expand legal protections for growers and limit certain hourly wage requirements now in effect.
The legislation has 37 co-sponsors in the Senate and 59 in the House. But an influential wing of House Republicans opposes any easing of immigration restrictions. Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is said to be working against the bill behind the scenes, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, leader of a faction called the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, which wants to tighten U.S. borders, denounced the bill.
Bush holds the key to moving the bill, said immigrant advocate Rick Swartz. "If President Bush were to join [senior Republicans] in endorsing the bill, its prospects for enactment this year would be greatly enhanced," he said. "If the administration stays on the sidelines and the legislation fails, it could create significant political backlash both from agriculture interests and Latino voters."