Senators Say Visa Deal Near as Immigration Timing Slips

A bipartisan Senate group negotiating a rewrite of U.S. immigration law is close to a deal on revising a visa program for farmworkers and has agreed to improvements in border security, Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake said today.

They said the eight-member group is making progress on resolving disputes over wage rates and visa caps for foreign farm workers. The group was set to meet this afternoon for the first time in almost three weeks after returning from an Easter break.

“That’s been one of the difficulties all along, wage rates and caps and everything else, but I don’t think there’s anything significant that’s come up now that wasn’t there before,” Flake told reporters. “It’s just tough to work through.”

McCain and Flake told reporters they signed off on a proposal to improve border security, satisfying a chief Republican demand. The two senators spoke to reporters today as they entered a closed-door Republican lunch.

The push to rewrite U.S. immigration law is the first major effort since 2007. Republican opposition to providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers already in the U.S. has lessened since November’s election, when President Barack Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic votes cast. Republican leaders say the party needs to do more to court the fast-growing group of voters.

‘Not Sure’

A Democratic member of the bipartisan group, Illinois Richard Durbin, said in an interview that he was “not sure” whether the group could meet its goal of introducing a bill this week, the latest sign that the time frame is slipping.

“It turns out that the drafting part of this is much more challenging,” Durbin said. “They’ve been working on it for weeks on the things we agreed to. So I can’t predict when that would be ready for actual bill introduction.”

Durbin said the group had “come pretty far” on resolving the farm worker issue. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who led past efforts to revise the visa program for agricultural laborers, said today that negotiators should know in 24 hours whether a deal possible.

In recent days, prospects for unveiling a bill this week have dimmed. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the group, said April 7 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the senators hoped to introduce a bill “in the next couple of weeks.”

Guest Workers

Visas for farm workers, a separate low-skilled guest worker program, visas for high-skilled workers and a citizenship path are among issues being negotiated, according to one aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.

Still, senators involved in the talks said they were on track to complete a proposal in the coming days.

“It’s not necessarily sticking points, it’s a complex bill; these are provisions that take a while to write,” Flake said.

The delay underscores the difficulty that Democrats, who control the Senate, will have coming up with 60 votes needed to pass an immigration proposal. The Republican-controlled House, where a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers are crafting an immigration proposal, poses a greater challenge.

Chiquita, Sunkist

A dispute over a visa program for farmworkers who harvest the bulk of U.S. fruits and vegetables has emerged as a focus of the talks. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the United Farm Workers of America and groups representing companies including Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Sunkist Growers Inc. are among those weighing in on how to structure a program for largely seasonal, lesser-paid agricultural laborers.

Wage requirements for workers and the number of visas allowed under a farm guest worker program are the two main sticking points, said Kristi Boswell, congressional relations director for immigration at the American Farm Bureau Federation. The group is the largest representing U.S. farmers.

“We are hammering out the final details on the wages and caps to make sure the program is sustainable,” Boswell said in a telephone interview. “They are the linchpin details for the entire program.”

About 25 percent of the farm workforce -- more than 300,000 individuals -- don’t have valid immigration paperwork, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Wage Gains

The United Farm Workers of America, the largest migrant agricultural labor group, maintains that growers are trying to use the debate over immigration policy to erode wage gains workers have made.

“There is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done” before a final deal can be reached, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, told reporters today. “We have too many farmers who do not have any confidence that they have a workable legal immigrant system or visa system.”

The farm worker issue has taken on prominence since business and labor leaders reached a tentative agreement March 29 over the structure of a program to allocate visas to low-skilled, non-farm foreign workers.

The agreement would establish a federal bureau called the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research and a visa program called the W Visa Program, according to the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union. The group reached the agreement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business group.

Labor Shortages

The bureau would use labor market and demographic data to identify labor shortages and help set an annual visa cap. It would be funded through registered employer fees.

Employers seeking workers in less-skilled fields including hospitality, janitorial services, retail and construction could apply through the visa program, which also would allow workers to seek permanent status after working for one year.

The program would start with 20,000 visas in the first year and could never exceed 200,000 annually. One-third of all visas would go only to businesses with less than 25 employees, and construction visas would be capped at 15,000 per year, addressing the AFL-CIO’s concern about a potentially adverse impact on that industry.

House Republicans, including Idaho’s Raul Labrador, have said the agreement wouldn’t get much support in the House because it was too favorable to unions.

Price Tag

Senators of both parties also have raised concerns about the proposal’s cost, with Republicans focusing on the price tag for creating a 13-year pathway to citizenship and Democrats emphasizing border security measures.

Opponents of granting legal status to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. maintain the plan would be a deficit-swelling burden on the federal budget and proponents say it could provide needed growth to a recovering economy.

Another potential stumbling block is Republicans’ demand that a pathway to citizenship occur only after the Department of Homeland Security certifies that there’s been a measurable increase in border security.

The Senate group’s plan will provide more Border Patrol agents, improved infrastructure such as radio networks, and increased surveillance by unmanned aerial drones. The legislation will propose a commission of state and local officials from states bordering Mexico to monitor progress of these measures and advise the Department of Homeland Security, according to principles the Senate group released in January.

Final Product

“I’m satisfied with that language that seems to be coming out, but we have to look at the final product,” Flake said today.

In a sign that some Republican lawmakers may demand more stringent border security than what the Senate group proposes, Senator John Cornyn and House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, both Texans, today proposed requiring federal officials to certify “a 90 percent probability that illegal border crossers” will be apprehended.

Cornyn said he wants the proposal to “inform” the Senate legislation.

The last major immigration revision, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status and created a market for fraudulent documentation. Illegal immigration soared, casting a shadow on subsequent efforts to legalize immigrants.

Another contentious issue in the talks has been how to accommodate Republicans’ demand to increase the number of visas given to foreign nationals who receive graduate degrees in science and technology fields from U.S. universities.

A compromise may require a tradeoff between more job-related visas and the annual allotment of 65,000 visas for adult siblings of naturalized U.S. citizens.