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Legislators introduce sweeping agricultural guest-worker program

WASHINGTON—The introduction Wednesday of an ambitious agricultural guest-worker plan showcases the changed Capitol Hill circumstances that may make 2007 the year for an immigration overhaul.

Some congressional roadblocks are gone. Sympathetic new leaders are in charge. A restored Democratic majority claims new priorities.

"A year does make a difference," insisted Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Or so he hopes.

Joined by lawmakers from Florida and California, and backed by hundreds of farm, labor and church groups, Craig is reintroducing a guest-worker plan that's been debated for years. As many as 1.5 million farm workers and their relatives now in this country illegally could gain legal status under the bill.

The legislation, dubbed AgJobs, would also revise an existing guest-worker program that farmers consider inefficient. It's the first big immigration overhaul bill introduced this year, mirroring legislation passed last year by the Senate but not the House of Representatives.

"I happen to believe we have the votes," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I believe the bill can move quickly."

Professed optimism is partly tactical, demonstrating momentum. The press conference announcing the bill amounted to a rally, as AgJobs supporters such as Idaho apple grower Kelly Henggeler, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez and Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno, Calif.-based Nisei Farmers League, cheered on the lawmakers.

Previous press conferences convened since 2003 were similarly staged, and Henggeler—a third-generation grower from the town of Fruitland—conceded feeling "a little bit (of) deja vu." Still, the optimism may also have some foundation in fact.

The bill is bipartisan, introduced by Republicans Craig and Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida and Democrats Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., helped negotiate the package and introduced an identical bill in the House.

The legislation would grant "blue cards" to illegal immigrants who could prove they had worked in agriculture for at least 150 days in the last two years. They must continue working in agriculture for several years before attaining permanent legal status.

The Republicans who controlled the House last year refused to bring the guest-worker legislation up for a vote. This year, Democrats control the House by a 233-202 margin.

"With the change in the majority party, I think we're going to see a situation where we get something done this year," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

Last year's chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, Indiana Republican John Hostettler, staunchly opposed guest-worker bills. Voters ejected him in November. This year's immigration panel chair, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, supports the agricultural guest-worker legislation.

Likewise, the skeptical GOP chair of the House Judiciary Committee—Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner—has been replaced by a sympathetic Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Lawmakers added Wednesday that Florida Republican Adam Putnam's service as chair of the House Republican Conference brings a sympathetic voice to the GOP's top ranks.

"There's a little bit more impetus with the change of leadership on the congressional side," said Vito Chiesa, a California peach and almond grower.

The Senate will probably move first, since it took the lead last year. As before, the agricultural guest-worker package could be folded into an immigration overhaul plan that extends beyond farm workers. Congressional negotiators have quietly been redrafting such a comprehensive plan.

The broader proposal will be introduced later with its own fanfare. It will extend to millions of illegal immigrants the opportunity to become legal U.S. residents and, eventually, citizens if they can pay fines and cross other hurdles.

As before, both the broader immigration overhaul and the AgJobs proposal will incite vigorous resistance.

"The Senate has already heard a great number of euphemisms about the AgJobs bill, but let's be clear from the start about what we are discussing," Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., warned during earlier debate. "It is amnesty for aliens employed unlawfully in the agricultural sector, and it is amnesty for the businesses that hire and exploit them as cheap labor."

If resistance to a immigration overhaul bill grows too stiff, Berman said, the agricultural guest-worker package could moved as a separate bill.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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