The Palm Beach Post, December 14, 2003

Support grows for immigrant bills

By Jane Daugherty, Christine Evans and John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers

Two key immigration bills stuck for months in Congress promise more jobs and safer lives

for migrant workers while guaranteeing a continued supply of cheap foreign labor for U.S.

employers. Unexpectedly, the measures now are gaining new support that could lead to

passage early next year.

 

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge surprised many observers Tuesday in Miami

when he called for the U.S. to grant some form of legal resident status to millions of illegal immigrants.

 

"I think there's a growing consensus that, sooner rather than later, we need to deal with the

reality that these men, women and families are here, many contributing -- most contributing --

to their community, paying taxes, paying into Social Security," Ridge said. "We have to legalize their status."

 

That could be accomplished under a bill nicknamed the AgJOBS Act, which would make millions

of migrant workers eligible for legal resident status. It also could greatly increase the number of

agricultural guest workers and extend protections to them to combat smuggling of foreign workers

and inhumane working conditions, such as those documented in The Palm Beach Post's recent series,

Modern-Day Slavery.

 

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., one of the sponsors of the AgJOBS bill, along with Florida Sen.

Bob Graham, called Ridge's comments "quite a positive contribution to the momentum that's building for the bill."

 

Berman said with Graham and 48 other senators, including 24 Republicans, signed up as cosponsors,

"We're building up a real head of steam for passage in the Senate," perhaps as early as January.

 

House passage will be harder, but Berman still predicts that, with "the tremendous support of

growers around the country, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, most of the major

immigrant advocacy groups and endorsement from non-agriculture industries," the House will pass

AgJOBS in the first quarter of 2004.

 

Another pending bill, the proposed Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2003,

would go even further and greatly expand the foreign guest worker program beyond agriculture.

 

It also would allow illegal immigrants who can prove they have worked for a specified time

for a U.S. employer to apply for legal residency.

 

The White House has been silent about immigration amnesty since talks with Mexican

President Vicente Fox broke down after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

 

After Ridge's remarks last week, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told reporters

that President Bush still wants to "match willing workers with willing employers," suggesting

Bush will support some version of the earlier proposal calling for more guest workers and

legalization of at least 3 million immigrants now in the country illegally.

 

Ridge's spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said in an interview Friday that Ridge was not speaking

about specific immigration legislation in his Miami remarks but supports measures that would allow

the U.S. to collect identity and residency information on those illegal immigrants.

 

"How to keep track of people who are in the country illegally has been in the forefront of our concerns

since 9-11," Roehrkasse said. "The secretary was talking about the 8-12 million people in the U.S. illegally.

 

To us it's about our mission to secure our borders. We need some method of keeping track

of where these people are."

 

Fear of deportation makes voluntary registration unlikely unless, as the Bush administration has

suggested, limited work permits and driver licenses are offered to those in the U.S. illegally.

 

Act protects workers

Others who want immigration reform higher on the national agenda are more concerned

with widespread human rights violations than registration for national security reasons.

 

Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworkers Justice Project based in Tallahassee,

said AgJOBS would take significant steps in protecting agricultural workers from exploitation.

It would expand and modify the agricultural guest worker program known as H2-A. Formally

named the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003, the bill's text says

its aim is "to provide a stable, legal agricultural workforce, to extend basic legal protections

and better working conditions to more workers."

 

Williams said Ridge's comments Tuesday appear to signal a shift in the Bush administration

toward supporting AgJOBS. "That's our first sign for a while that the administration may support this.

 

That's really critical."

 

He said of the bill, "It's a compromise." And in terms of what Mexico wants, "This is not the whole

enchilada, but it's something."

 

Not everyone agrees that it's a positive step. Dan Stein, executive director of Federation for American

Immigration Reform in Washington, said, "We believe the new legislation is totally inconsistent with

what government priorities ought to be at the moment. The priority should be security.

 

"Experience shows that this legalization will encourage more people to come illegally... as happened after

the 1986 amnesty (when 1.3 million illegal immigrants became citizens). We should tell the Mexicans

that the Congress -- the American people -- control immigration, not the potential employers."

 

Stein said the AgJOBS Act's three-year guest worker legalization provision is "amnesty on the installment plan.

 It will dramatically overburden Homeland Security," which will have to be dealing with the legalization, including

processing questionable and false documents presented by some people who apply.

 

Instead of immigration reform including legalization of some illegal workers, Stein said,

"We need first to control immigration, improve interior enforcement, improve document

security and decrease document fraud."

 

Citrus growers back bill

But Mike Carlton of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade group that represents most of the state's citrus

growers who are heavily dependent on migrant labor, said the AgJOBS bill is a positive step for

Florida farmers.

 

"We certainly are optimistic about the bill. We very much support it," he said. "I think any time you

have a bill that is supported so broadly by so many sectors of industry, you have to take it seriously."

Craig Regelbrugge of the American Nursery & Landscape Association, with 2,300 members nationwide,

also is enthusiastic in his support of AgJOBS.

 

"We've had a broken agricultural labor system in this country for a long, long time," Regelbrugge said.

"There are many jobs in all of agriculture that are physically demanding and highly seasonal. Frankly,

they are not the jobs most Americans are anxious to get out and do.

 

"So as we stand here today... we have in agriculture a workforce estimated to be 70 percent undocumented.

That's problem No. 1: We have an illegal workforce that is feeding our nation."

 

He said the second problem is that the guest worker program is dysfunctional.

 

'These bills are a sham'

That's just one of the "lies being told by supporters of the amnesty-granting immigration bills," said Rep.

Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the Congressional Reform Caucus. "These bills are a sham. This is an

amnesty program masquerading as immigration reform.

 

"The costs of these bills to taxpayers would be enormous. The only thing cheap about cheap labor is the

cost to the employer. Cheap labor costs American taxpayers a fortune.... We just passed $1 billion in the

Medicare bill specifically designated for illegal immigrant health care -- it says right in the bill,

'illegal immigrant health care.' "

 

Tancredo said he is incensed that the Bush administration and other Republicans may be

supporting the measures. "This is voodoo public policy," Tancredo said. "We're not being

honest with the American people, and they are the ones who will have to pay for the long-term

costs for creating a huge underclass."

 

The bills do incur costs to the government and pose trade-offs, including freezing the wage rate of

guest workers for three years at a maximum of $8.42 a hour. But improving living conditions and eliminating

sometimes fatal desert crossings for millions of migrant workers who pick America's fruits and

vegetables is a high priority for Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, chairman of the U.S. Conference

of Catholic Bishops migration committee.

 

"I see it (AgJOBS) as a very positive thing," said Wenski, a longtime human rights advocate.

"It promotes the common good because it will also allow the growers to stabilize their workforce.

 

We are very hopeful that it passes.

 

"It has the potential to legalize 3 million people, including some 100,000 in Florida."

 

Wenski said another positive provision in AgJOBS gives migrant workers the chance to

go to court to defend their labor rights. "This will allow these workers a chance to live

under the law and not in its shadows."