WASHINGTON — An influential Republican senator objected Wednesday to a provision of the sweeping bipartisan immigration reform package unveiled this week. The key provision, authored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) would grant agricultural guest workers permanent U.S. residency – often referred to as a “green card” – after five years.
Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who worked with the Colorado Democrat last year as a member of the “Gang of Eight” on the fiscal-cliff negotiations, suggested the proposal could reward those who falsify documents and exploit loopholes to obtain legal permanent residency.
“I’ve never had a problem with people once they’re here in this country, but giving them a Green Card is a problem,” he said, responding yes to a reporter’s question if the provision was too liberal. “It’s open for abuse.”
Chambliss said the legislation “moves in the right direction” and did not say he would oppose it. Yet his criticism of Bennet’s provision highlights the political fragility of the bipartisan legalization proposal filed early Wednesday morning.
“I’m not sure it’s going to get 60 votes,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said with a wan smile at the Capitol Wednesday.
Nelson said he supports the legislation, but as a senator for twelve years, he saw both the 2007 and 2010 immigration overhaul efforts fail in the upper chamber. His comment suggests that Senators opposed to legalizing undocumented immigrants may seek to filibuster the legislation, an effort to stop the bill that would require proponents to muster 60 votes to overcome, a difficult proposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The bipartisan piece of legislation would give the 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally before December 31, 2011 a pathway to citizenship if they meet several requirements, tie future immigration levels to border security, and expand the ranks of foreign workers who can fill high-skill and low-skill jobs.
Bennet helped craft two key provisions in the bill. One provision would create a new “Invest-visa” program to reward immigrant entrepreneurs who create jobs and build businesses. The other provision would scrap the current H-2A agricultural worker visa program and replace it with a “W-visa” program for lower-skilled agricultural workers. Under the plan, guest workers holding the W-visa could apply for a green card after five years.
At a press conference Thursday, Bennet said the legislation not only fulfilled the rule of law and the aspirations of an immigrant-based nation, but also met the goals of key economic sectors in Colorado.
“This bill is incredibly important for my state,” Bennet said, noting that peach growers on the Western Slope and cattle growers in the eastern part of the state are “struggling to get ahead.”
Bennet’s office also released a statement that said the bill would help the state’s tourism and restaurant industries.
Bennet is a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators on immigration reform. It is not his first foray into the issue, as he was a member of the bipartisan “Colorado Compact” that sought to reach consensus among statewide figures about immigration reform.
The other members of the “Gang of Eight” are Republican senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Marco Rubio of Florida as well as Democratic senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Charles Schumer of New York, and Richard Durbin of Illinois.
Bennet’s stature within the Senate group appears to have increased.
McCain had said that Bennet, who is one of two members of the group and lacks a history of sponsoring major immigration legislation in the Senate, was “not part of the core negotiations” when the group held a press conference in January to discuss its key planks. On Wednesday, McCain said Bennet has played a “very important role” in crafting the bill.
A Bennet press release said the senator worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and two Republican senators, Rubio and Orrin Hatch of Utah, on the agricultural guest worker provision in the bill. Hatch confirmed his work with Bennet in an interview Wednesday.
Yet the provision on low-skilled guest workers in both agricultural and non-agricultural professions is bound to be a key bone of contention among senators. Interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and unions reportedly support the provision, while critics worry about the downward pressure that a large influx of foreign workers could place on the wages of lower-skilled American workers.
With the jobless rate not having dipped below 7.5 percent since late 2008, and a still sputtering U.S. economy, the addition of tens of thousands of foreign workers to the labor pool is bound to exacerbate an already difficult job market for less-educated American workers.
A report from the center-left organization Third Way, “Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education,” released last month, found that wages for males with less than four years of college declined between 1979 and 2010.
Schumer said the bill would require American employers to “look for Americans and advertise for American workers” before filling the positions.
The text of the legislation says that a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research would “supplement the recruitment methods employers use to attract W non-immigrants” and devise a method to determine the annual change to the cap on the foreign workers.
Schumer and Rubio have sought to mollify critics who contend the bill will drive down wages. At a Republican caucus lunch Wednesday, Rubio emerged from the room walking shoulder to shoulder and talking with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) a critic of the guest-worker and pathway-to-citizenship provisions of the bill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the bill today and Monday. Proponents have said they expect the full Senate to vote on the bill in a month or two.