WASHINGTON — Advocates for farmers and farmworkers warned federal lawmakers Tuesday against a mandatory employee-verification program, underscoring the high hurdles ahead.
While the Republican-controlled House of Representatives pursues the so-called mandatory E-Verify program, the Democratic-controlled Senate is leery. A hearing Tuesday seemed designed to demonstrate the Senate's skepticism as well as E-Verify's alleged dangers.
"The existing challenges we face in securing a stable workforce will pale in comparison to the devastating impact of E-Verify legislation in the absence of a workable labor program," Western Growers Association President Tom Nassif told a Senate panel.
E-Verify is a voluntary program that about 250,000 employers use to electronically check eligibility to work in the U.S. A House bill would make the program mandatory, a step that some states, including Georgia and South Carolina, already have taken.
Nassif joined Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers of America, and others Tuesday in urging the Senate Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee to resist the House's mandatory nationwide E-Verify proposal. Politically speaking, they were preaching to the choir.
The powerful Democrat who leads the Senate panel, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, blasted the House's E-Verify legislation as an "existential threat" and a "death sentence" for many U.S. farms. A motivated Schumer is well-positioned to impede the House bill.
Roughly 1.4 million farmworkers are employed on U.S. crop farms annually. Illegal immigrants account for as many as 60 percent or more of them, Ronald Knutson, a Texas A&M University emeritus professor, told the panel Tuesday.
Acknowledging the demographics of this population, some senators want to link employee verification to a broader agricultural guest-worker plan. So far, both proposals appear caught in the same immigration gridlock that's long stymied Congress.
On Tuesday, nonetheless, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California declared that next week she'll introduce her latest version of a guest worker program dubbed AgJobs. For the past decade, some lawmakers have proposed an AgJobs program to grant legal residency to more than 1 million foreign-born farm workers and family members.
Feinstein called her new version an "emergency" measure that would last for five years. She said it wouldn't involve U.S. citizenship, though she didn't elaborate.
"My frustration is a little high at the moment," Feinstein said, adding that "while we fiddle and sit here, American agriculture goes offshore."
Reinforcing her point, Feinstein circulated a 78-page booklet that promotes AgJobs and details the travails of Turlock, Calif., dairy farmer Ray Souza, Tifton, Ga., vegetable farmer Bill Brim and others around the country who say they need a more stable workforce.
Last month, on a party-line vote, the House Judiciary Committee approved the mandatory E-Verify bill. It has yet to come to the House floor. The bill would phase in participation over two years and would cover new hires rather than current workers.
When the House bill next comes up for a vote, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., says, he plans to offer another kind of agricultural guest-worker program as an amendment to it. Although he was blocked from offering his amendment in the House Judiciary Committee, Lungren maintains that it's the only way an E-Verify bill can get through Congress.
A Senate version of the E-Verify legislation would cover all employees.
"It's an important credibility-building issue," Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Tuesday. "We have to convince the American people the Congress is serious about fixing the current immigration system."
Cornyn is in charge of Senate Republicans' re-election efforts, which arguably wouldn't be helped if Congress set aside differences and passed a bipartisan immigration-related bill.
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