WASHINGTON—Tactical concessions and a lot of heavy lifting secured special treatment for agriculture in the big immigration package that's slated for Senate action.
The result is a slightly different measure from the one that farmers and their workers first wanted. Some revisions are cosmetic: A proposed "blue card" granting legal status now has a different name. Other revisions matter more, including waiting times and English-language requirements.
But overall the agricultural guest-worker program closely tracks what lawmakers unveiled under the name AgJobs nearly four years ago.
"We made some changes that we thought were livable as part of getting it into the deal," Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., said Friday.
Berman played a key role in negotiating the latest agricultural guest-worker program, much as he did two decades ago when Congress passed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Both efforts resembled a Capitol Hill thrill ride in which victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat, and vice versa.
"It's no sure thing," Berman cautioned when he was asked about the latest bill's prospects. But he added, "I'm hopeful, and I'm more optimistic now than I have been."
Debate on the immigration measure, including the latest version of AgJobs, will start Monday.
The original AgJobs was designed as a grand bargain between farm operators and their workers. Management and labor each got something big in the first AgJobs bill, introduced in September 2003.
That bill would give farm operators a streamlined new guest-worker program, refining the current H-2A program, which many consider inefficient. Only about 30,000 foreign workers annually come in through the present H-2A program. In turn, farm workers would secure a chance for 1.5 million illegal immigrants to attain legal status.
The first big question when serious immigration negotiations resumed three months ago was whether to give agriculture unique status. The White House said no. Then it agreed to assist agriculture through the provisions of the overall immigration bill.
Finally, negotiators said, the White House relented and agreed to give agriculture its own program. Some overall immigration provisions would affect farm workers, while others would not.
"It provides a way out of the shadows for those who have worked in agriculture and who will continue to work in agriculture for a number of years," California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said.
Feinstein's close ally, Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, added that "agriculture should be pleased" with the outcome.
The overall bill, for instance, would provide new "Z" visas for many of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. First they'd gain "probationary" status. This could be converted to full-fledged, renewable visas after the Department of Homeland Security certifies that certain border-security goals have been met.
However, the Senate deal would allow 1.5 million illegal immigrant farm workers to obtain permanent "Z-A" visas immediately by paying fines and taxes and learning English. The original AgJobs bill called this a blue card. More significantly, farm workers would be exempt from the probationary status and border-security triggers that would apply to other illegal immigrants.
"If we had to wait for the border fence to be built, there wouldn't be any workers for agriculture," Manuel Cunha, the president of the California-based Nisei Farmers League, said Friday.
Negotiators did compel agriculture to comply with some of the requirements imposed on others. For instance, unlike the original AgJobs bill, illegal immigrant farm workers must wait at least eight years and return to their home countries, albeit briefly, before they could get permanent green-card visas.
Farm workers also must demonstrate English "fluency" before they could convert "Z" visas into green cards, which grant permanent legal residency.
Final legislative language was elusive Friday, and some specific provisions remained "bracketed" and subject to weekend negotiations
"These are not policy things," Berman said of the remaining details. "They are really minor."