From the field to the board room, there's widespread interest in the activities of low-wage farm-workers, many of whom are illegal immigrants. It's a political, as well as an economic matter ... and one that is drawing increasing interest in Congress.
After six years, an immigrant that is learning English, pays all back taxes and an additional $1,000, can apply for permanent residency.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter says his committee will consider the Kennedy-McCain proposal when it reconvenes on March 27. Majority Leader Bill Frist claims immigration reform will be on the chamber's floor that week, regardless of whether the Judiciary Committee develops a comprehensive bill.
Senators looking to overhaul immigration law are walking a tightrope of competing farm interests. The American Farm Bureau Federation has called on Congress to meet agricultural worker demands. A Farm Bureau study predicts one-third of the nation's fruit and vegetable producers would no longer be able to compete with foreign growers if a guest worker program is NOT developed. The study claims U.S. agriculture could lose $9 billion a year without immigrant workers.
Speaking to a crowd of farmers outside Capitol Hill, Idaho Republican Larry Craig defended the need for a guest worker program.
"This industry that produces this marvelous abundance around us is more sensitive to a labor force and need of a labor force in an immediate sense than any other segment of the American economy." Larry Craig (R) - Idaho
Agriculture's need for cheap labor also is competing with security concerns on the U.S.-Mexico border. Last December, the House approved a bill calling for 1,000 new border patrol agents in 2006. Just last week, Senators on the Judiciary Committee agreed to further increases in the number of border patrol agents.
"We can not do an immigration bill that only focuses on the security of our border. We must also make sure we secure our food supply and that we secure a labor force that's going to be available for us to continue to have the viable agricultural industry that this nation needs and depends upon."Sen. Mel Martinez (R) - Florida