WASHINGTON — Western growers and union activists are scrambling for a fix after the comprehensive immigration bill on which they'd pinned their hopes collapsed Thursday.
Facing long odds, some Westerners nonetheless say they might try resurrecting an agriculture-only portion of the immigration package. The so-called AgJobs measure would legalize 1.5 million illegal immigrants who have a history of farm work.
"We're going to push it," vowed Manuel Cunha, the president of the Fresno, Calif.-based Nisei Farmers League.
Like the larger immigration measure, AgJobs is complicated. As first introduced by Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho in 2003, the legislation spanned 103 pages. Like the larger bill, it incites controversy over claims that it offers amnesty to lawbreakers.
The AgJobs bill, though, targets a smaller population than the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants potentially affected by the comprehensive bill.
"I think AgJobs has potential," Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday. "I think we can move this because of the harvest coming up, and because of the fact that agriculture labor is way down now."
AgJobs would grant special visas to illegal immigrants who've worked in agriculture for the past several years and who continue to do so for three or more years. In time, the immigrants could convert their special visas to permanent U.S. legal residency and, eventually, citizenship.
The legalization provisions won the support of liberals, the United Farm Workers and church groups. In turn, groups such as the Nisei Farmers League, the Idaho Growers and Shippers Association and Florida's Indian River Citrus League signed on because of promised changes in an existing agricultural guest-worker program.
Last year, senators folded the AgJobs provisions into the comprehensive immigration bill. But from the start, supporters including Craig and Feinstein retained the option of moving their agriculture-only bill separately if the larger bill died.
"We're going to start the discussion about this in the next two weeks," Cunha said. "We may be putting it onto another type of legislation; we don't think it can go alone."
As currently introduced, a separate AgJobs bill has 29 Senate co-sponsors.
In particular, lawmakers might try attaching this agriculture-only immigration package onto an appropriations bill used to fund the federal government. This is a popular technique, because appropriations bills enjoy momentum on Capitol Hill and must be passed to keep the government running.
In April 2005, for instance, Craig tried attaching AgJobs legislation to an $81 billion supplemental appropriations bill funding the Iraq war. The effort attracted 53 votes, which weren't enough to overcome a potential filibuster.
That effort fell short in part because lawmakers said they didn't think that immigration revisions belonged on a war funding bill. A standard appropriations bill wouldn't face this objection.
"Americans are demanding that we control this immigration problem," Craig said at the time. "We are offering an approach, a solution to part of that."
Politically, there are some advantages in trying to move an agriculture-only immigration bill. There also are some disadvantages.
AgJobs supporters say they can sell their standalone bill as a discrete and manageable change, simpler to handle than the comprehensive bill that failed to win sufficient Senate support.
"I hope the Senate will work immediately to pass the noncontroversial portions of this bill such as . . . AgJobs," Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer said Thursday.
On the other hand, the larger bill's collapse took with it supporters who otherwise lack strong incentives to vote for an agricultural guest-worker plan. Some backers of comprehensive immigration restructuring also see benefit in holding on to the agricultural provision to ensure some rural votes.
An even more fundamental question, after the exhausting melodrama of the past several months, is whether lawmakers have the heart to revive any bill that contains the word "immigration."