Senate to square off over divisive farm guest-worker plan

WASHINGTON — Well over 2 million illegal immigrants could gain temporary legal status for up to five years under a measure moving toward Senate consideration as early as Wednesday.

On its face, the controversial immigration plan authored by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein bestows legal status on 1.35 million farm workers. Actually, it reaches further to include spouses and children. The result is a bill bigger than it appears.

"It's basic decency," Giev Kashkooli, the United Farm Workers' national political legislative director, explained Tuesday. "This is a nation that understands the importance of families."

But neither the 101-page agricultural guest-worker bill, its potential consequences nor the surrounding politics can be called simple. Though the bill's prospects are uncertain, it's already putting at least one presidential candidate on the spot.

Feinstein and Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho want the immigration package included in a $194 billion emergency spending bill that will fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By a 17-12 vote last week, following scant debate, the Senate Appropriations Committee added the provisions to the war spending bill.

The next steps are unclear in the Senate, where the procedural and political dynamics are complicated.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona voted in April 2005 to include an ambitious agricultural guest-worker plan on an earlier Iraq war spending bill. Now, as the Republicans' presumed 2008 presidential candidate, McCain is wooing the very conservatives most opposed to anything that smacks of immigration leniency.

"The lesson of our failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform is very clear," McCain told a Los Angeles audience in March. "The American people want our borders secured first."

Nonetheless, Kashkooli said Tuesday he hopes McCain will still register his support for the farm worker plan. McCain is campaigning in California on Wednesday and Thursday, when the Senate could consider the measure.

Agricultural guest-worker supporters potentially need 60 votes to prevail, and they can ill afford to lose any senators. Another key ally faded Tuesday, with the announcement that Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was hospitalized with a malignant brain tumor. Kennedy authored the original agricultural guest-worker bill.

Proponents say a severe farm worker shortage necessitates the plan. In addition to offering temporary legal status for farm workers now in this country illegally, the bill boosts the existing but little-used H-2A guest-worker program.

"This legislation is designed as a temporary solution to this crisis, that's the bottom line," Feinstein declared Tuesday.

Unlike the original AgJOBS, the new bill does not put immigrant farm workers on a path toward the green card that denotes permanent legal U.S. residency. Unlike AgJOBS, the new bill also imposes a five-year time limit on the legal status.

The original AgJOBS bill offered legal status to 1.5 million farm workers. The new bill reduces this to 1.35 million. The new bill specifies, though, that spouses and children will have "derivative" legal status. The measure also states these family members "shall not decrease the number of aliens who may receive emergency agricultural worker status."

The spouses also would be allowed to apply for their own legal work permits.

Three of five farm workers are married, according to the Labor Department's most recent National Agricultural Worker Survey. Half of all farm workers are parents. On average, the 2001 survey found, the parent farm workers had two children. Not all live in the United States.

Still, the farm worker population surveys suggest more than a million spouses and children could potentially end up seeking temporary legal status in addition to the 1.35 million farm workers.