A bipartisan group of senators working on a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws is optimistic that legislation will be ready to present to Congress when it returns from Easter recess.
The Gang of Eight is drafting legislation that would put nearly 11 million illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship and restructure the countrys visa programs regulating the entry of skilled, unskilled and agricultural workers.
According to reports, the group favors a 13-year path to legalization for undocumented immigrants in the country, in contrast to an amnesty. They would have to be here at least 10 years before receiving a green card that would legalize their status and allow them to work without having to return home. After that, they would have to wait three years before applying for citizenship. Immigrants legally holding a green card now have to wait five years for citizenship.
Reform will also address increased border security to reduce illegal immigration and mandate a system requiring employers to check the immigration status of workers.
However, legal immigration is also an outstanding issue as negotiations reportedly continue over changes to two visa programs for legal immigrants often referred to as guest workers.
Disagreements between the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce over minimum wage levels were said to be delaying agreement on a new visa program for low-skilled, nonagricultural workers such as housekeepers and hotel and hospitality employees. The program is currently capped at 66,000 visas annually, but that could rise to 200,000 depending on demand.
However, gaining less attention is a separate visa program for agricultural workers, known as H-2A visas, that farmers depend on for help. Only 65,000 were issued last year.
Farmers and ranchers have complained that the visa program is too onerous and time consuming, requiring farmers to spend, as a recent USA Today article noted, 2½ months and hundreds of dollars getting approval from several state agencies and four federal agencies just to get one H-2A worker on their land.
Other restrictions apply, though. The program was intended to provide farmers with workers to harvest their crops, and visas are temporary or seasonal in nature. Immigrant workers are also tied to a single company. Farm owners turn to foreign workers because they are unable to find Americans willing to do the job .
Dairy farms, though, are not covered by the program, although dairy farmers are increasingly relying on foreign workers. The shortage of workers has many farmers reluctant to expand operations. And the seasonal nature of the existing visa program overlooks the year-round needs of dairy farmers.
As talks continue toward a final draft of immigration reform, negotiators need to establish a guest worker program that will ensure a dependable source of long-term workers to harvest our food supply and work our dairy farms.