Saxby Chambliss says the agricultural guest worker program language reported out by the Senate Judiciary Committee March 27 will “punish” farmers who have been abiding by the law and utilizing the H-2A program, the current, temporary guest worker program.

Not only that, it would create a new “blue card” program that would enable current or future aliens to enter the United States, work for a farmer or rancher for a short time and then move on to other, “less back-breaking” forms of employment, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said.

Speaking during the Senate debate on immigration reform legislation, Chambliss said Congress must ensure that a “legal process for hiring foreign workers is put into place and strictly adhered to.” But it must also address the problem of the estimated 11.5 million non-citizens who are currently in the country illegally.

“The immigration problem in our country is out of control and must be solved,” he said. “Our top priority in this immigration reform debate is to provide for real and comprehensive border security. We must also address in a responsible manner the presence of an enormous illegal population currently in our country.”

The Georgia Republican said he believes the reform legislation passed by the Judiciary Committee on a 12-6 vote would provide a path to permanent citizenship for all currently illegal immigrants working in agriculture.

Amendment for ag

“This is not what Georgians or the American people want,” he said. “When this debate reaches the Senate floor, I plan to offer an amendment providing an alternative that will address the needs of agriculture in a more responsible way.” (The Senate held two debates on the bill the week of March 27 and was scheduled to take it up again April 3.)

Chambliss said the magnitude of the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States has been “astounding.” The U.S. Border Patrol arrested 1.2 million illegal immigrants in 2005, but hundreds of thousands more are believed to have entered the country unlawfully because the Border Patrol didn't have the resources to stop them.

“We can address this problem and we will, by providing more Border Patrol agents, better infrastructure, additional checkpoints and the use of the latest technology available,” he said, adding that Congress must also deal with the magnet that is drawing so many to the United States — the promise of a job.

“Most illegal immigrants in the United States do not come to this country to cause us harm but rather came to earn a better life for themselves and their families,” he said. “We can address this problem, and we will by mandating employer sanctions for those who flaunt the rule of law and continue to hire illegal workers and by providing tamper-proof documentation to those who are authorized to work in the United States.”

‘Citizen-worker bill’

Chambliss said he doesn't think the legislation passed by the Judiciary Committee should be called a guest worker bill. “It is more appropriately named a citizen-worker bill because it provides a clear new path to citizenship for aliens who are currently in the United States illegally.”

In a statement released by his office, Chambliss said his immigration reform proposal would:

  • Provide a mechanism for addressing the presence of undocumented agricultural workers in the United States without creating a potential work stoppage on the nation's farms or providing a new path to citizenship.

  • Ensure stringent protections for American workers are in place.

  • Crack down on employers who hire illegal workers. “If Congress provides employers with a viable migrant worker program to obtain a reliable legal workforce, we should not tolerate and hold accountable employers who hire illegal aliens,” he said. “Employers who knowingly violate the law by hiring unauthorized workers are hampering America's efforts to secure the border.”

  • Require the Department of Homeland Security to provide each H2A worker with a tamper and counterfeit-proof document with biometric identifiers and requires the H2A employer to verify the work authorization of all domestic workers.

  • Ensure that foreign workers' ties to their country of nationality remain strong, mandates limits to a foreign worker's continuous stay in the U.S. without returning to his/her country of nationality for specified periods, but allows employers to extend work periods as necessary to ensure that crops are planted, cultivated and harvested in a timely manner.

  • Require the U.S. Department of Labor to increase the number of random audits and investigations of program users to ensure compliance with U.S. workplace laws and regulations.

New immigration reform legislation passed by the House last year deals only with tightening security of U.S. borders and includes no provisions for providing temporary or permanent guest worker programs.

An American Farm Bureau Federation study predicts the failure to include a comprehensive guest worker program in any new or reformed immigration law would cost the U.S. farm sector $9 billion annually overall and up to $5 billion a year in net farm income.

The study says the U.S. fruit and vegetable sector would disappear because those producers — who are especially depend on hired labor — would no longer be able to compete with growers in central and South America.

Farm Bureau says that about 3 million persons now work in U.S. agriculture with about 2 million drawn from farm families and 1 million hired from off the farm. “Although no one knows the precise figure, estimates say half or more of agriculture's hired labor force of 1 million is not authorized to work in the United States,” a Farm Bureau spokesman said.

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