Raju Chebiem
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Farm groups in California, the nation's top agricultural producer, are lobbying for the Senate's immigration bill, which proposes bringing in thousands of new migrant workers and allowing undocumented employees already in the U.S. to become legal, permanent residents in about 10 years.

But their push could hit a wall in the House, where conservative Republicans oppose what they call "amnesty" to 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., even though critics acknowledge California farmers have a labor-supply problem.

The California farm lobby says the measure being debated in the Senate would ease chronic labor shortages that plague fruit and vegetable growers in the Coachella, Central and Salinas valley, where the bulk of the nation's "specialty" crops are grown.

The bill would scrap the unpopular H2A migrant worker visa and create a new guest worker program -- the "W" visa -- under which at least 336,000 migrant workers could come to the U.S. for the first five years after implementation.

It would also allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers to apply for "blue" cards first and then for "green," or permanent residency, cards. The full legalization process would take about 10 years for migrant workers, more quickly than others.

And the measure calls for a special employer-verification system for agricultural employers separate from the "E-Verify" system other industries would have to use.

Congress must put migrant farmers on the road to legalization because if they leave the state's agriculture industry would collapse, according to the California Farm Bureau, Nisei Farmers League and others who helped craft the agricultural provisions and are part of a 70-member coalition lobbying for its passage.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, urged the House to accept the "workable" solutions in the Senate bill.

"We have to have a reliable supply of labor. What we need is regulatory certainty," he said. "We have a unique opportunity this year - and this year alone - to solve an ongoing problem."

If Congress punts it may ignore the issue for years, he warned. California growers have been waiting since the 1986 immigration law for Congress to create a stable supply of migrant workers to fill the gaps created by the scarcity of domestic applicants for farm jobs, advocates say.

Manuel Cunha, president of Nisei Farmers League, urged the House to embrace the Senate's agriculture-specific provisions instead of trying to come up with a less-suitable alternative.

"We're not rubbing the Senate (bill) in their face, but we're saying, 'Look at it. We worked for four solid months with four senators and the labor side and we came up with something,'" Cunha said in a recent interview in Fresno, Calif. "Take away your politics and look at the issue and look at the merits of what we're doing here."

California Republicans from heavily agricultural districts like Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare don't reject the Senate's agriculture provisions outright, but say they won't work as promised.

It's "laughable" to think the measure would help California growers, he said.

For one, it would sharply ratchet up labor costs, said Nunes, adding that he's working on a somewhat similar set of proposals for possible inclusion in a House immigration bill.

"There's been a concerted effort by some to say, 'Just take the Senate bill.' I've been telling people ad nauseam that is a fatal strategy. That will kill immigration reform," Nunes said.

The Senate agriculture provisions were written by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Bennet and Rubio are members of the "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group of senators that crafted the overall bill.

A similar bipartisan effort to write a comprehensive bill is sputtering in the House, the victim of partisan bickering. House GOP leaders hope to pass a number of narrower bills and reach a compromise with the Senate later. Advocates reject a farm worker bill introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., saying it would require workers to go home periodically, heightening the possibility of a sporadic supply of workers.

The Senate's proposed W visa program would require growers to pay transportation costs for the workers, provide them with housing or housing allowances, and pay them wages ranging from at least $9.17 an hour for nursery and greenhouse workers to $11.87 for farm equipment operators.

The wage provisions are expected to spark fierce opposition in the House.

California's minimum wage is $8 an hour, but farmers pay more than that already.

For instance, Central Valley farmers typically pay their workers at least a dollar more, Cunha said, rejecting suggestions that mandating a higher wage would ruin local growers.

Migrant workers in southern California's Coachella Valley could make up to $15-$20 an hour, according to Saul Manriquez of Rancho Harvest, a labor contracting firm that works with growers in the Coachella and Salinas valleys.

Undocumented workers seek a living wage and also want to pay taxes and become part of U.S. society, he said. adding that they don't want to be separated from their families or to live in constant fear of deportation.

"They'd rather be part of the system than not be here at all," Manriquez said, as his workers harvested watermelons in a southern California field. "They want to do better for themselves and also for their families. They want to raise families here because . . . the educational system is much better."

Growers say they are forced to depend on seasonal migrant workers - many of whom are undocumented -- because Americans shun the hard labor involved.

For instance, Cunha said San Joaquin Valley growers needed about 80,000 workers in the late 1990s, but were able to attract just three citizens or legal residents through California's welfare-to-work program.

Margit Chiriaco Rusche, southern district director of California Women for Agriculture, said if migrant workers are willing to work, it's only fair for Congress to make them part of mainstream U.S. society.

"There are so many farmers that have tried to employ . . . Americans and they last maybe an hour. They can't do this work. This is a cultural thing," she said in an interview in Coachella, Calif. "It's not fair to these people for us to glean from them what we need and not allow them the human dignity" of becoming legal residents.

Ellen Way, part owner of California's top bell-pepper producer Prime Time International, urged Congress to stress practicality over ideology. Having food grown in the U.S. to American standards is important for national security but "to do that we have to have a workforce," she said.

"As a voter, I'm looking for Congress to grow up and to be responsible and to work together. I think Americans are sick of this bickering," Way said.

Even critics of the Senate's immigration bill, like Rosemary Jenks of Numbers USA, acknowledge that American farmers have a labor problem and are justified in wanting an effective migrant-worker program.

But the Senate's proposed W visa is temporary in name only because workers could eventually apply for green cards, she said. And once they become permanent residents, they leave farm work for less-strenuous and better-paying work, she said.

Under an ideal guest worker program, Congress would let people come in for specified periods of time and require them to return home, Jenks said.

"The Senate bill doesn't do that. The Senate bill says, 'Bring your families, we'll educate your kids,' she said in a telephone interview Friday. "Who's going to be paying for their kids' education? American taxpayers. Who's going to be paying for their health care? . . . American taxpayers."

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