Politics & Government

Senate drops farm guest-worker legislation

WASHINGTON — An ambitious agricultural guest-worker plan died with a whimper and not a bang this week, as senators quietly dropped the proposal from an Iraq war spending bill.

With little ceremony and no debate, a quick parliamentary maneuver late Tuesday night killed California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's guest-worker plan. The plan would have given temporary legal status to 1.35 million illegal immigrant farm workers, as well as their spouses and children.

"We knew it was an uphill battle, but we thought it was one worth fighting," Scott Gerber, Feinstein's press secretary, said Wednesday.

Still, the unexpected revival and equally abrupt demise of the guest-worker plan raise questions about the strategy and tactics employed by those who want to grant legal status to some illegal immigrants. Feinstein did not appear to secure any concessions nor gain new allies through her short-lived guest-worker maneuver.

"The American people have been clear they want us to restore the rule of law to our immigration system before legalization programs are considered," declared Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "Stripping it was the right thing to do."

Sessions, like Feinstein, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They were on opposite sides during last year's Senate debate over a massive immigration bill that included an agricultural guest-worker package dubbed AgJOBS. That bill would have given legal status to 1.5 million farm workers, putting them on track to permanent residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.

The comprehensive immigration bill collapsed, prompting farmers and farm worker advocates to seek other ways of passing AgJOBS or something like it.

Last week, Feinstein added a slimmed-down agricultural guest-worker plan to the $194 billion emergency war-spending bill. The revised measure would have given 1.35 million farm workers temporary legal status for five years. Spouses and children, potentially numbering more than 1 million, also would have been covered.

The United Farm Workers and immigrant advocate groups favored the legalization. Farmer organizations emphasized another part of the bill, strengthening the existing H-2A agricultural guest-worker program.

"Virtually every farm organization in the United States is in support of this legislation," Feinstein noted during brief committee debate last week.

The bill's supporters touted last week's 17-12 vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee as evidence the guest-worker plan had political momentum.

The guest-worker amendment, though, also provoked considerable opposition from conservatives and border-control advocates. Skeptics always considered it unlikely that Congress might approve a sweeping, albeit temporary, immigrant legalization plan as part of an unrelated defense bill, several months before an election and without much groundwork being laid. The Senate Judiciary Committee held its last hearing on immigration matters in March 2007.

Inside the Senate, opponents included the influential chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V. The Bush administration was already warning that the Iraq war spending bill might warrant a presidential veto if lawmakers loaded it up with too many domestic items.

The bill's fate thus already appeared grim by the time Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., rose Tuesday night to lodge a parliamentary objection against the guest-worker package. Without elaborating, Menendez cited a rule against legislating on an appropriations bill. No one objected to the objection, and the measure was dropped.

"We'll be back," Gerber said.

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