Immigration bill to benefit Western Slope agriculture

QUICKREAD

AT A GLANCE

A look at major provisions of the Senate immigration bill:

BORDER SECURITY

■ The bill sets out a series of requirements that must be achieved over 10 years before anyone here illegally can obtain a permanent resident green card. These include:

(1) Roughly doubling the number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border, to at least 38,405.

(2) Completing 700 miles of pedestrian fencing along the border, which would require approximately 350 new miles of fencing.

(3) Installing a host of new security measures and technologies in specified locations along the border, including specific numbers of surveillance towers, camera systems, ground sensors, radiation detectors, mobile surveillance systems, drones, helicopters, airborne radar systems, planes and ships.

(4) Implementing a system for all employers to verify electronically their workers’ legal status.

(5) Setting up a new electronic system to track people leaving the nation’s airports and seaports.

■ The border security improvements are designed to achieve 100 percent surveillance of the border with Mexico and ensure that 90 percent of would-be crossers are caught or turned back.

■ If the goals of a 90 percent effectiveness rate and continuous surveillance on the border are not met within five years, a Southern Border Security Commission made up of border-state governors and others would determine how to achieve them.

■ Border security spending in the bill totals around $46 billion.

PATH TO CITIZENSHIP

■ The estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally could obtain “registered provisional immigrant status” six months after enactment of the bill as long as:

(1) The Homeland Security Department has developed border security and fencing plans, per the specifications set out in the bill.

(2) They arrived in the U.S. prior to Dec. 31, 2011, and maintained continuous physical presence since.

(3) They do not have a felony conviction or three or more misdemeanors.

(4) They pay a $500 fine.

HIGH-SKILLED WORKERS

■ Immigrants with certain extraordinary abilities, such as professors, researchers, multinational executives and athletes, would be exempt from existing green-card limits. So would graduates of U.S. universities with job offers and degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.

■ A startup visa would be made available to foreign entrepreneurs seeking to come to the U.S. to start a company.

LOW-SKILLED WORKERS

■ Agriculture workers already here illegally, who’ve worked in the industry at least two years, could qualify in another five years for green cards if they stay in the industry.

FAMILY IMMIGRATION

■ Legal permanent residents can currently sponsor spouses and children, but the numbers are limited. The bill eliminates that limit.

EMPLOYMENT VERIFICATION

■ Within four years, all employers must implement E-Verify, a program to verify electronically their workers’ legal status. Noncitizens would be required to show photo ID that must match with a photo in the E-Verify system.

— Associated Press



Western Slope agricultural interests will benefit in the Senate-passed immigration bill, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said.

“I think rural America is a huge winner” in the measure, Bennet said Thursday, shortly after the bill fashioned by what he calls the “Group of Eight” passed the Senate.

He first learned of agriculture’s need for a better approach in a visit to Talbott Farms, Bennet said, noting that the measure will accommodate the kinds of seasonal employment needed by Talbott Farms and other fruit-growing and farming businesses.

Peach growers, for instance, need workers for one three-week period, Bennet said, but the current structure allows no predictability about who they can hire.

That’s the problem his company is facing right now, Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms said Thursday.

“We’re trying to farm with out-of-work construction guys,” Talbott said. “They don’t have the skills” that the Central American workers familiar with the agricultural practices his business needs can provide.

“They are really good at what they do,” Talbott said, noting that he can turn loose those skilled workers in his fields for weeks without having to 
supervise them.

The visa program also would change significantly under the Senate version, Bennet said, noting that jurisdiction of the program would transfer from the Labor Department to Agriculture Department, which “understands farmers and ranchers.”

Better coordination between farmers, ranchers, government and foreign workers would provide legal status, not citizenship, for workers and get them “out of the shadows,” Bennet said.

While the measure has the support of fruit-growing businesses around the country as well as organizations representing farm workers, hurdles remain within the industry, Talbott said.

Previous redrafts of immigration law have promised secure borders and better handling of workers and agricultural interests, Talbott said, but those promises went unfulfilled, leading to some deep-seated doubts.

“This is round 3 and nobody believes them,” Talbott said.

In the meantime, Talbott knows that his current crew could depart on a moment’s notice if there is a surge in the construction industry.

The House is working on its own version of immigration reform and a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said Tipton wants reform to fix existing problems and that verifiable border security must be the first step.

Ski areas experience similar difficulties and the Senate measure will be an improvement for employers and employees from other countries, Bennet said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., voted for the Senate measure and called it “a historic victory for hardworking Colorado families who demanded that Congress find a tough, but fair, way to strengthen our borders and create a sensible pathway to earned citizenship for the millions living in the shadows.”

With the Senate vote complete, “Everyone should take a breath” and study the measure before offering a separate measure, Bennet said.

“There are a lot of moving pieces from a political point of view and they all kind of hang together,” Bennet said. “My hope is that the people in the House will take a look at it.”


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