A sweeping immigration reform bill, largely seen as a compromise between lawmakers whose priority is border security and others who support a legal pathway for current undocumented immigrants, would bolster the nation’s farm workforce and revamp the visa program for seasonal farmworkers.
The 844-page Senate bill, which was formally filed by the bipartisan “gang of eight” early Wednesday, includes a provision that would establish a “blue card” for undocumented farmworkers who were employed at least 100 work days the past two years up to Dec. 31, 2012.
The blue card would give those current farmworkers legal status and allow them to travel outside the country.
They would also have to pay a $100 fine.
After five years of working at least 100 days a year or three years of 150 days a year, a blue-card holder would be allowed to apply for permanent residency, which would require them to pay an additional fine of $400 and any back taxes.
The blue card would also provide a faster path to citizenship than would be available to others here illegally.
Blue card holders would not be allowed to receive federal benefits, and the maximum time they would be able to hold a blue card would be eight years.
Along with the blue card provision, the country’s H2A program would be replaced with a new nonimmigrant farmworker visa program, of which 112,333 visas would be allowed in each of the first five years of the program.
Farmers had found the old H2A visa program too difficult to use and many had complained because it allows workers into the country for only 10 months at a time.
E-Verify would also become mandatory for all employers within five years.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and one of the “gang of eight,” said that farmers, especially in the dairy industry, will find it easier to secure a reliable labor force under the proposed changes to the nation’s immigration laws.
Schumer said the new visa program would allow farmers to hire year-round workers and end reliance on illegal laborers.
Delegations of farmers had traveled to Washington to lobby for an expansion of the guest-worker program for agriculture. Right now, dairy farms are ineligible for the temporary visa program, which is only for seasonal workers. Dairy farms need workers year-round.
Schumer said the bill will also ease the labor shortage for Northeast apple and vegetable growers.
Farm interest groups signed off on the major elements of the new program to bring farmworkers to the U.S., a key senator said late last week, which helped move the bill a step closer to passage.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the farm groups agreed on wages and numbers of visas in the new program.
Those were the big sticking points between the industry and the United Farm Workers, which had agreed to the deal earlier last week.
The overall goal of the legislation is to secure the border, create a path to citizenship for 11 million people now living illegally in the U.S., and require employers to electronically verify the legal status of their workers.
As much as 70 to 80 percent of the farm workforce is now illegal, industry and union workers agree.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.