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Sunday, June 20, 2004

Is moment finally ripe for farm labor reform?

Is moment finally ripe for farm labor reform?

Is moment finally ripe for farm labor reform?
Palm Beach Post Editorial
Sunday, June 20, 2004

Years of bipartisan negotiation soon could bring to the U.S. Senate floor a bill that would reform dramatically the nation's dysfunctional approach to immigrant workers.

More than 60 senators now support AgJOBS -- the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act -- and expect the measure to come to a vote this month as an amendment to the defense authorization bill. More than any other industry, agriculture is dependent on an undocumented, largely migrant work force. At least 50 percent and perhaps as many as 75 percent of all farmworkers are illegal immigrants, evidence of a broken system that fosters abuse and confounds efforts to maintain a reliable source of labor. Florida agriculture relies on a migrant force of more than 300,000 laborers, most of whom are Mexican and undocumented.

AgJOBS would replace the hypocrisy and denial of the current approach with a clear plan that offers workers real incentives to play by a reasonable set of rules. Instead of excluding immigrants from the system, AgJOBS gives them reason to participate. The bill does not offer amnesty for illegal workers, but it does put them on an attainable, incremental path toward legal status.

The congressional plan is far superior to the program President Bush proposed in January. AgJOBS, for example, spells out specific standards for attaining permanent status: A worker who completes 2,060 hours of agricultural labor, or 360 workdays, during a six-year period is eligible. The White House has offered only vague concepts of what a theoretical plan might be.

AgJOBS also has provisions aimed at preventing many of the abuses detailed in The Post's recent series, "Modern-Day Slavery." Employers must adhere to housing, transportation and wage requirements. Immigrant and migrant workers would gain a measure of autonomy with their legal status and not be left beholden to employers. The legislation would deal a blow to smugglers and disreputable contractors who have preyed upon field laborers for decades.

Other guest-worker proposals in Congress would expand AgJOBS provisions to other industries and help move the nation's 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants into the light of legitimacy. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who introduced the bill, correctly argues that it would enhance homeland security by requiring background checks and registration with government. Fair play is rewarded with fair treatment.

Cosponsoring the bill with the conservative Sen. Craig is Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., is also a vocal proponent. Mexican President Vicente Fox believes the guest-worker plan is essential to controlling border migration and will help the economies of both nations. Farmworker advocates think this is the most promising bill in years, and dozens of agricultural groups -- such as the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association -- also are supporters. It's time for the Senate to add its approval.

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