From VCStar.com, Ventura County, Star, Michael Collins, 4 Oct 2011.
WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced Tuesday that she intends to file emergency legislation calling for the creation of a five-year agriculture guest worker program so that growers will have the labor force desperately needed to work the fields.
Feinstein, D-Calif., said her proposal, which she plans to introduce next week, would not give amnesty to workers who are in the country illegally, nor would it offer them a pathway to citizenship.
What it would do, she said, is provide a counterfeit-proof “blue card” to immigrant workers who have met certain conditions and would let them remain in the United States with their families for up to five years, providing they work in an agriculture job a certain number of days per year.
A critical workforce shortage has forced growers to turn to undocumented workers to pick their crops because they are unable to find Americans willing to do the work, Feinstein said.
“I have come to have a great respect for people who have the stamina and the ability to be able to do these jobs,” Feinstein said. “Now, I’ve also come to the conclusion that Americans don’t — and don’t want to have — the stamina and don’t want to do those jobs. The people who do, I think, should.”
Feinstein disclosed her plans for a temporary guest worker program at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing prompted in part by a separate piece of legislation, which would require employers to use an online verification program to check the immigration status of potential workers.
The program, known as E-Verify, is already available for businesses to use on a voluntary basis but is mandatory for federal agencies and some federal employees.
Legislation mandating use of the E-Verify program has passed the House Judiciary Committee and is now headed for a vote on the House floor, where it is likely to pass.
A number of agriculture groups warned during the Senate hearing that mandating the use of E-Verify without some sort of mechanism to let growers hire desperately needed labor would devastate the industry.
“In the absence of a workable ag labor program, E-Verify not only promotes the movement offshore of what was once U.S. production, it is a jobs killer for rural America,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, an Irvine-based trade group representing produce farmers in California and Arizona.
Feinstein and other Democrats have been pushing for a decade for Congress to pass an AgJobs bill that would set up a temporary guest worker program for agriculture employees who are in the country illegally.
Such a program is critical, supporters argue, because the only other mechanism in place to help growers find workers is the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign nationals to enter the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural work.
But the H-2A “is utterly failing the agricultural industry,” Nassif said, citing complaints that the program is too administratively burdensome, is implemented ineffectively and is too unresponsive and inflexible to meet agriculture’s labor needs.
Yet despite the labor shortage, the AgJobs bill has never been able to win congressional approval, partly because it would have allowed cardholders to apply to become permanent legal residents under certain conditions.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggested the mandatory E-Verify bill pending in the House and the passage of similar laws in at least 18 states might have created the climate for Congress to pass a guest-worker bill like the one Feinstein is proposing, as long as it doesn’t offer undocumented workers a pathway to citizenship.
But Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said that while he believes a guest-worker program could be crafted in a way that would be passable and serve national interests, five years would be too long to let undocumented workers stay in the country. Guest workers should not be allowed to stay more than a year and should not be allowed to bring their families, Sessions said.
“You are not entitled to unlimited, low-cost labor,” he told the agriculture representatives testifying before the committee.