- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Backers of liberalizing immigration rules began a congressional push yesterday to give temporary legal status to up to 1.5 million illegal-alien workers to provide a labor pool for U.S. agriculture.

The proposal is a recycled version of parts of a bill that stalled after passing the Senate last year. House Republicans blocked negotiations on the measure, sticking with a get-tough stand against illegal aliens before the November elections.

Those wanting to loosen immigration laws hope the combination of a Democratic majority in Congress and support from President Bush will help their proposals.

“The reality is, Americans have come to rely on an undocumented-migrant work force to harvest our crops,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said in a press conference.

Under the bill, illegal aliens who can show they have labored in agriculture for at least 150 workdays for the past two years would become eligible for a “blue card” bestowing temporary legal status. Their spouses and minor children also could get a blue card if they already live in the United States.

People with these cards who work an additional three years, at least 150 days a year, or five years, at least 100 days a year, would be eligible for legal residency. But they first would have to pay a $500 fine, be up to date on taxes, have no record of committing crimes involving bodily injury or threat of serious bodily injury or have caused property damage of more than $500.

The blue-card program would end after five years, unless it is renewed. The bill would reduce the time it takes to get a visa for an alien who wants to come to the United States to work in agriculture.

Among those supporting the bill are Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and a chief architect of last year’s Senate immigration bill, and Republican Sens. Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Mel Martinez of Florida. Reps. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican, and Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, are sponsoring the House version.

Opponents say immigrants provide cheap, exploitable labor to the industry and deflate wages for American employers. They also contend such workers become a drain on taxpayers because those workers, once eligible, turn to welfare, Medicaid and other social programs.

Proponents are getting support from growers who saw their crops left to waste in fields because of farmworker shortages last year.

California grower Toni Scully said growers in her county, Lake County, started last year’s harvest with half the approximately 900 pickers needed to bring the crop in on time. She said more than 26 million pounds of the county’s fruit crop went to waste.

“If Congress doesn’t pass real reforms this year, we could see the apple industry outsourced to South America or China,” said Kelly Henggeler, chairman of the U.S. Apple Association, which represents pickers and growers from 36 states.

The blue-card proposal probably will be in broader immigration bills to be introduced in the House and Senate in late winter. Mrs. Feinstein and the other lawmakers said they have enough votes to pass the bill separately and would do so if the broader bill does not advance.

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