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Immigration deal includes separate guest-worker program for ag

WASHINGTON—Farmers and farmworkers get special attention in the big immigration compromise reached Thursday.

Overcoming initial White House resistance, farmers won the inclusion of an ambitious agricultural guest-worker plan. The pending deal could allow up to 1.5 million illegal immigrant farmworkers to obtain legal status and, in time, U.S. citizenship.

"It's fine," Manuel Cunha, president of the California-based Nisei Farmers League, said late Thursday afternoon. "It's a fair compromise, so long as somebody doesn't do anything bad to us overnight."

Overnight is when further details will be resolved, as lawmakers work through a broader immigration package now spanning some 380 pages. Negotiations could continue as late as Monday, when the Senate begins public debate and voting. Final passage isn't guaranteed.

Under the compromise legislation, illegal immigrant farmworkers—estimated to be 60 percent of the nation's 2.5 million farmworkers—would become eligible for a new "Z-A" visa, granting legal status once a $5,000 fine is paid and certain other hurdles passed.

Farmworkers also would earn points as skilled workers under a new merit-based immigration plan, which would replace a current immigration system that emphasizes reuniting families. Points for education, English proficiency and employment skills would make it easier for people to immigrate.

Carving out special rules for agriculture became a sticking point for some. But it was deemed essential by rural lawmakers, who knew that the agricultural provisions had their best chance politically if they were attached to a big immigration bill.

The agricultural provisions will help secure the 70 Republican votes that House of Representatives leaders have said will be needed to pass the overall bill once the Senate is done, said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.

White House negotiators first insisted that agriculture be treated like every other industry, prompting Cunha to charge Thursday that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "doesn't understand agriculture well." Under pressure, the White House eventually agreed that agriculture could get special treatment.

"Some of us have been very involved . . . in trying to see that we have a consistent labor force for agriculture, the one industry in America that almost solely depends on an undocumented workforce," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a news conference. "I believe we have achieved it in this bill."

After expressing early concerns, Feinstein last year joined Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, as an enthusiastic backer of what supporters call AgJobs. Farm and labor organizations, including the United Farm Workers, negotiated the original AgJobs bill, first introduced in 2003.

The final package appears to include about "90 percent" of the AgJobs package that farmers and farmworkers originally bargained for, Cunha said. Craig and Feinstein had both insisted that the big immigration bill include the agriculture provisions.

"The American people have rightly demanded that Congress solve the national problem of immigration, and the bill announced today is a serious effort to do just that," Craig said.

The bill includes a streamlined new guest-worker program that permits farms to import foreign workers for specific seasonal work. Farmers say the current H-2A program, which farmers say deserves an F for its complexity and snail's pace.

The Senate deal also includes changes that some may not like. The $5,000 fine, for instance, is far higher than a $500 fine proposed under the original AgJobs bill.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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