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Know the West

A bright spot for illegal workers

  About a half-million undocumented immigrant farmworkers may earn legal residency under a bill introduced in Congress in September. Unlike a host of similar efforts in the past, this bill appears likely to pass. “This is very historic,” says Will Hart, a spokesman for Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, who co-sponsored the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003 (AgJOBS). Lawmakers, farm-owners and the United Farm Workers of America have worked on the proposal for three years.

Under AgJOBS, immigrants who can prove they worked 100 days on U.S. farms between March 1, 2002, and Aug. 31, 2003, can apply for temporary resident status for themselves and their families. After six more years of work, they can become permanent residents. The bill also streamlines the current process farm employers use to legally hire foreign workers. The present program, says Hart, yields visas for less than 50,000 workers, while an estimated 800,000 immigrants labor illegally in the United States (HCN, 9/29/03: Harvesting Poison).

The compromise has won bipartisan support in Congress. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, co-sponsored AgJOBS with Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat; Sen. Craig joined Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to introduce it in the Senate.

Proponents say the bill will also aid national security by bringing illegal immigrants “out of the shadows,” but some groups disagree. Jack Martin of the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform says, “(A) better way to improve homeland security is to get people who are in the shadows out of the country.”

Hart responds: “We don’t believe that’s a realistic approach.”