A six-year struggle to reach a historical compromise on federal immigration reform went down the tube in the final hours of the 106th Congress.
When Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, talked about the extensive immigration reform package at the recent Western Growers Association convention in Tucson in November, she was concerned the presidential race might derail what looked like a done deal.
That was not the reason the reform pact was not attached to an end-of-session funding bill. It was a double cross by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi to appease staunchly conservative Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.
"We had everyone signed off on the package - the White House, California Congressman Howard Berman, Farm Bureau, Farmworker Justice Fund, agricultural employers I work for and even Lott, " said Hughes. "Then Senator Lott at the last minute brought up all kinds of excuses why it should not be approved.
"We answered them all, but then he finally said flatly it is not going to be attached to the spending bill because Senator Gramm does not want it to pass," she said. "We were shocked because Senator Lott had told us earlier that if we could put a compromise package agreeable to everyone, he would see that it passed. And, that's what we did.
"Gramm will accept an open border with Mexico or a guestworker program for 30 years, as long as there are no provisions for permanent status," What he wants is a bracero program and anything resembling that will not get to first base politically.
Hughes speculated that Lott cooled Gramm's heels early on in process of putting the compromise package together by telling Gramm he did not expect the effort to be successful. When it was successful, Lott went back on his word to agricultural employers and other supporters of the bill to appease Gramm.
Lott's action riled not only U.S. Rep. Gary Condit of Modesto, a key player in brokering the compromise, but Rep. Howard Berman, a Democrat from Los Angeles. Berman is a big advocate for immigrant interests, and Condit is an influential voice in San Joaquin Valley and California agriculture. Mariposa Republication Congressman George Radanovich also was disappointed by the Lott double cross.
The package would have streamlined the cumbersome H-2A program; frozen wages at current levels while the Department of Labor studied the wage provisions now part of H-2A and permitted producers to pay for housing allowances for H-2A workers rather than provide housing.
It also would have offered amnesty to about 500,000 workers, but the program would have been limited in scope and require those eligible to work 360 days within the next three to five years to gain permanent status.
For most, the defeat was bitter. However, some immigration reformists contend with George W. Bush moving into the White House there would a better change of achieving even broader immigration reform later.
"That may be true, but we have to start all over now. And, farmers need help now. They cannot continue taking the economic hit they are now with wages going up 40 to 50 cents per hour," said Hughes. She also noted that with the defeat of the immigration reform package, INS agents are already stepping up enforcement.
Lott is a considered a staunch supporter of agriculture, particularly federal farm programs for row crop producers. However, he has proven himself very unfriendly to specialty crop growers from Florida to California.
Half of California's agricultural labor force is illegal. Immigration laws are a farce. Unfortunately significant reform went out the window with backroom politics.