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While the high-tech industry’s push to increase the number of visas granted to foreign workers has received a lot of attention, another piece of legislation that could affect as many as 500,000 farm workers is quietly wending its way through the corridors of Capitol Hill. The bill, which is being driven by the powerful agribusiness lobby, would dramatically expand an existing agricultural guest worker program. Growers are facing heated opposition from labor, Latino, and religious groups, who say the bill is a cynical measure to increase the availability of cheap labor. A similar bill was nixed two years ago by the Clinton administration. This time, however, growers are optimistic about their chances. The major reason: The new version of the bill includes a provision that allows farm workers who have entered this country illegally to win permanent residency. Under the legislation, farm workers in the country illegally can become eligible for a green card if they work as official guest workers for five out of the next seven years. The aspiring immigrants would be required to work in the agriculture sector for 180 days a year. They would not be permitted to get nonagricultural jobs and would have to return home for at least 65 days a year. “What we are doing is providing an opportunity for people who want to work here anyway,” says Mike Ware, chief of staff to Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), one of the bill’s main supporters. “This is an opportunity for people who do not have other advantages.” Craig has vowed to bring the legislation to the Senate floor and is considering attaching it to the bill that provides guest workers to the high-tech industry under the H1-B program. But worker advocates say the bill would weaken existing protections. From their perspective, the legislation is just a scheme to legalize the cheap labor the growers already use. “This proposed guest worker program is really kind of a cruel hoax,” says Bruce Goldstein, head of the Farmworkers Justice Fund. “The workers will be in such a vulnerable status that they couldn’t seek to enforce the limited rights they have. They are not just creating an immigration program, they are trying to enact a lot of labor law.” American agriculture has relied on foreign workers — many of them illegal — since World War II, when the so-called bracero program was started. The program brought hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers from Mexico to work in the fields to make up for Americans fighting overseas. The program also spawned a massive amount of illegal immigration as workers flooded over the border seeking work. Things got so bad that, in 1954, the Immigration and Naturalization Service initiated “Operation Wetback,” which led to military-style roundups and deportations of Latinos, often indiscriminately and in violation of human rights. The bracero program was shut down in 1964, but by then American agriculture had become dependent on low-paid, undocumented workers, which today make up anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of the agricultural work force. Growers again are claiming they suffer from a labor shortage that has forced them to leave crops unpicked. The farm lobby has been trying to drive this home with an aggressive grass-roots program. Last week, dozens of growers from California flew to Washington to meet with the state’s delegation — including Democrats Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. Sam Farr, and Republican Rep. Richard Pombo. Farr opposes the bill; Feinstein has not issued a statement. Pombo is planning to introduce a version of the guest worker bill in the House in the next few days, according to a spokesman. Elia Vasquez, a strawberry farmer in Santa Cruz who made the trek to Washington, says she has not been able to harvest all of her crops because of labor shortages. George Bonacich, who produces dried apricots in San Benito, says the laws barring child labor have made it harder to find workers. The growers and their supporters say the bill not only will help them sustain their businesses, but also will help the thousands of foreign workers who toil in U.S. fields each year. “Keep in mind that these people are illegal now,” Mary Healy, spokeswoman for Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), one of the bill’s authors. “They have no rights, no protections. There is no way the situation can get worse for them.” The National Council of Agricultural Employers, the major agribusiness trade group, has been pushing for this bill for nearly five years. In addition to its chief lobbyist, Sharon Hughes, the group has sought the assistance of outside lobbyists including Monte Lake and Jim Holt of McGuiness & Williams, who are both well-connected to members of the agriculture and immigration committees. Also working the issue are Tony Podesta — brother of White House Chief of Staff John Podesta — and Charles Hansen of Podesta Associates. LEAVING NOTHING TO CHANCE The agribusiness lobby has taken nothing for granted. Since 1995, the industry has given Smith $877,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), another of the bill’s sponsors, received $209,000, while Craig was given $482,000. Pombo has taken in $91,000 since 1999. While the rationale for the bill rests on the growers’ argument that they can’t find enough workers, worker advocates contend that there is no labor shortage. They cite reports from the Congressional Research Service and the General Accounting Office that show an unemployment rate of more than 11 percent for farm workers. The CRS also notes that employers facing labor shortages usually raise their wages. But average wages for farm workers fell from 1989 to 1998, when adjusted for inflation. The hourly wage dropped from $6.89 to $6.18, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “That is what the growers are after — continuing the oversupply of workers so they don’t have to raise wages,” says Joel Najar of the National Counsel of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. Furthermore, the provisions of the bill allowing illegal workers to apply for residency will only hurt the laborers, according to worker advocates. The problem, they say, is that the estimated 400,000 illegal workers who would enter the green card program will not be afforded protections normally extended guest workers. In contrast, guest agricultural workers who come into the country legitimately through the H-2A guest worker program receive special benefits, such as higher wages, housing, and transportation. About 40,000 foreigners are working under this program. Advocates also argue that the bill would put pressure on workers not to complain to employers about wages or conditions for fear of losing their jobs and their ability to gain residency. Tying immigration status to a work requirement amounts to an “indentured servitude program,” says Rosalinda Guillen, political director for the United Farm Workers. A worker who needs to log 180 days to get a green card, she says, “can be forced to do anything so they won’t get fired.” Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a longtime farmworker advocate, testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration earlier this month that “adjusting farmworkers’ status, but to leave them consigned to the second-class, infinitely exploitable status of nonimmigrants is no boon whatsoever to farmworkers.” Worker advocates contend that the bill would also lower protections for guest workers under the H-2A program. They claim the legislation could lower existing wages because of a provision that allows H-2A workers to be paid as a “group.” The workers would be required to earn only the minimum wage, which is lower than what they are now guaranteed. The bill also removes the requirement that employers provide housing. Instead, they can provide workers with a housing allowance of roughly $170 a month. Housing for itinerant workers is extremely scarce, says Goldstein, meaning many workers would be left without shelter. Hughes, the growers’ lobbyist, says workers advocates are misinterpreting the bill. She says the legislation requires that individuals would still have to be paid the prevailing wage for the geographic area and occupation, which is higher than the minimum wage. Letting growers provide a housing allowance was designed to get more of them into the program. After three years, if sufficient housing is not available, the bill provides for governors in each state to mandate that employers provide housing. Berman has been trying to bring the two sides together in the last few weeks, but says a compromise is still a long way off. “Let’s create a process where [a grower] can hold onto his work force,” Berman says, “as long as he pays them good wages and treats them with good working conditions.”

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