House Immigrant Plan Seen as Return to 1940s U.S. Program

An immigration proposal in the Republican-led U.S. House would be a step back to a World War II-era program and deny basic rights for migrant workers, the president of the United Farmworkers Union said.

The House guest-worker plan being studied by the Judiciary Committee, which permits more agricultural laborers while rolling back current protections, represents a return to “the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s with the bracero programs,” Arturo Rodriguez said today in a Bloomberg Government breakfast, referring to a time when Mexican workers crossed the border for what a U.S. Labor Department official in 1964 called “legalized slavery.” Without significant change, the House plan won’t win support from farm groups, he said.

“We can’t afford to go back in history at this point in time,” he said. “Farmworkers are human beings, like anyone else. They expected to be treated this way, and we as Americans really do not want to dishonor farmworkers.”

Under a deal grower and farmworker groups reached last month, guest-worker visas would be capped at 337,000 over three years and provide a path to citizenship, while a House proposal would permit 500,000 a year with no pathway, among other differences. Rodriguez testified on immigration today before the House Judiciary Committee, while its Senate counterpart takes up farm labor as part of legislation it’s drafting.

Senate Action

The Senate bill, which would give legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants, has so far survived proposed changes that might have doomed it in floor debate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants the legislation to reach the full chamber next month.

In the House, where Republicans are seeking stronger border security, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers has yet to agree on a measure. Idaho Republican Representative Raul Labrador, part of the group, yesterday said the group is close to giving up after negotiating on an immigration bill for the past four years.

The House Judiciary Committee separately has begun examining issues piecemeal, including the guest-worker program targeted by Rodriguez. In testimony today, Christopher Gaddis, chief human resources office for JBS USA, the domestic division of Sao Paulo-based JBS SA, said the company, the world’s biggest beef producer, is encouraged that the initiative’s broader definition of an agricultural laborer would include meatpacking employees.

‘Important Steps’

The path to reform “is probably not a straight path down a four-lane road,” Gaddis said in his prepared statement. “We appreciate the important steps forward taken by the legislation.”

About 300,000 farmworkers lack valid immigration documents, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Other studies suggest the total may exceed 1 million, depending on time of year and historical migration trends.

Groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group, have said regulations under the current farmworker visa program makes labor too expensive and an effective harvest workforce unworkable. Under the Senate plan, certain requirements to advertise and pay housing and transportation expenses would be relaxed. In return, laborers would be able to switch employers, a key demand of farmworker advocates who consider it a way to enhance worker protections as other rules are eased.

The House plan would drop housing and transport requirements.

2007 Effort

Congress’s last effort to pass comprehensive immigration legislation stalled in 2007. Republicans are trying to reconnect with Hispanics after President Barack Obama won 71 percent of that group’s votes in the November election.

Rodriguez said he’s hopeful a new immigration policy will pass Congress this year, in part because of a personal pledge made in October by Obama to Rodriguez’s mother-in-law, Helen Chavez, widow of union co-founder and civil-rights leader Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993.

While Obama was visiting the rose-adorned Chavez grave, Helen Chavez had one request for the president, according to Rodriguez: “I would like to make sure and request that you get immigration reform passed.”

“He said, ‘You know what, Mrs. Chavez, I promise you I will get that done.’”

The Senate bill is S. 744.

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