Farm advocates worried about Mexican workers and immigration bill

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(Host) Vermont farm advocates are concerned that an immigration overhaul bill does not go far enough to protect Mexican workers in the dairy industry.

And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is worried that the guest worker provisions in the bill will lead to lower wages for U.S. workers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) About 2,000 Mexicans work in dairy barns around Vermont. Under the immigration bill now being debated in the Senate, they could eventually gain legal status.

It’s a process, however, that could be expensive and bureaucratic.

For example, the bill creates a new kind of visa, called a “Z” visa. To qualify for this, a farm worker would have to admit he or she broke the law. They would pay a $1,000 fine, and they would have to renew the visa every four years.

If they wanted a green card, which grants more permanent legal status and a possible path to citizenship, the process is more difficult. They would have to return to their home country, pay an additional $4,000 fine, take an English test, and prove to U.S. authorities the skills they would bring to the U.S. labor market.

(Folsom) “They’re trying to come up with something that works for everybody and it’s a gamble and a challenge at the same time.”

(Dillon) Jackie Folsom is president of the Vermont Farm Bureau. She’s disappointed the bill doesn’t contain a provision that allows dairy farmers to hire foreign workers legally under a separate agriculture visa program.

That language, backed by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, was dropped from the version now under debate.

(Folsom) “If there is an immigration bill that has a chance of making it through and doesn’t have dairy in it, the possibility of us going in and fixing that at a later date are probably slim and none.”

(Dillon) Folsom is also concerned about the language that requires a worker to pay up to a $5,000 fine. She says the cost of the fine would probably get passed on to farmers.

(Folsom) “Somebody’s got to pay that $5,000, you got to get them back home, and if then if they go back to the end of the line, how does that help agriculture?”

(Dillon) State Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee also wants to see a dairy worker provision in the bill. But his says the bill, if adopted, would be an improvement over current law. And he’s pleased that debate has finally started on immigration.

(Allbee) “Any time you have compromise you’re going to have people on all sides who won’t agree to the final thing, or who may agree. I guess we would like to see something done quickly. And if this compromise is what does it, we need to move forward.”

(Dillon) Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was one of 23 senators who voted Monday against opening the debate on the bill. Sanders says the legislation was crafted behind close doors – outside the normal committee process. But he’s also concerned about a section of the bill that creates a guest worker program. Sanders says foreign guest workers will compete against U.S. workers for low-paying jobs.

(Sanders) “Which to my mind will only depress wages in America even further. So I have very strong concerns about the economic impact of some of the provisions in this legislation in terms of what it will do to the middle class and working people and lower income people.”

(Dillon) Sanders’ opposition is an example of the difficulties the immigration bill faces. As a compromise bill crafted by both Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and the White House, it’s under attack from the right and the left.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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