Leahy to propose scaled down immigration bill

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(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy says he’ll propose a scaled down immigration bill designed to primarily help agricultural workers if Congress fails to pass a comprehensive reform plan in the coming months.

Leahy and Senator Bernie Sanders were on opposite sides of a key vote concerning the future of the legislation.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The Senate has been debating its immigration reform bill for nearly two weeks and late Thursday night, backers of the legislation tried to cut off debate and set a timetable for a final vote. But the effort failed when supporters were able to garner only 45 of the 60 votes they needed.

The bill would allow up to 12 million illegal workers to stay in this country through a temporary visa program and it includes a mechanism for these workers to eventually qualify for citizenship.

Leahy joined with a majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans to cut off debate.

(Leahy) “I think we should protect the security of our borders and I think that’s a prime thing. But we also have to be realistic about 12 million illegals in the United States. You’re not going to just round them up and ship them out. We have no ability to do that. We should find a way that they’re actually out of the shadows – where they’re going be subjected to our laws.”

(Kinzel) But Sanders voted against this motion. He joined with a majority of Republicans who want to continue to offer amendments to the legislation. Sanders says he’s concerned about a provision of the bill that would allow millions of people to enter the country in the future as part of a guest worker program.

(Sanders) “People who are prepared to work for very low wages and on the other hand through the H1B program professions such as nurses, professors, engineers health care workers, who will be competing against Americans for decent paying jobs. So it seems to me that at a time when we’re losing millions of good paying jobs, when poverty is increasing, the last thing that we need as a nation is to bring in millions and millions more people to be competing against Americans for the jobs that we have.”

(Kinzel) The future of the bill is now very much in doubt. Senate Democratic leaders are vowing to reconsider the legislation in several months.

If that effort is unsuccessful, Leahy says he’s prepared to sponsor legislation that gives illegal workers who are employed in the agricultural industry a pathway to citizenship. It’s estimated that there are roughly 2000 illegal workers filling vital jobs on Vermont dairy farms.

(Leahy) I think we can get some agricultural worker provisions in that would take care of dairy farmers but also take care of a lot of not only full time agricultural workers, but seasonal workers. And if we can’t pass a big comprehensive farm bill, then a number of us are willing to bring up a separate bill just to address those issues.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he’s disappointed that President Bush didn’t do more to convince Republican senators to support the bill. And he says the legislation will never pass unless the President takes a leadership role on this issue.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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