The Senate's "gang of eight" could roll out a long awaited comprehensive immigration plan next week, but a key provision over what to do about the country's immigrant agricultural workers is stuck in limbo and could be absent from the bill.
And without a deal between agricultural unions and growers, a comprehensive immigration reform would be less comprehensive than many expect, experts say.
Immigrant farm workers are central to the U.S. economy, doing back-breaking work many Americans won't do. They support a $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry, the National Center for Farmworker Health says. According to the group, more than 70 percent of farm workers are foreign born with a majority immigrating from Mexico.
This week labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reached an agreement over temporary worker visas for immigrants, but those talks didn't cover farm labor. And though a deal to cover that category of workers was close, sources close the negotiations say talks broke down and took a turn for the worse over the last few days.
This portion of the immigration bill being spearheaded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has hit a standstill and the Western Growers and the United Farm Workers have taken "a breather" from negotiations to revise the current H2A visa program, sources say.
The current program that administers agricultural visas is steeped in bureaucracy, growers say. Many times the paperwork is exhaustive, complicated and the process takes so long that many farmers complain they don't get workers in time.
The broken system has led many to take on workers who have entered the country illegally.
"You end up hiring someone who comes to you with a document that looks legal," one grower says.
U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, which tracked farm workers between 2007 and 2009, estimated 48 percent of them entered the country illegally.
As with the prior negotiations between the Chamber and big labor, the sticking point on farm workers is over pay and temporary worker caps.
Without an agreement, lawmakers will be forced to weigh whether to blow up the entire immigration reform process over farm labor or move ahead without revising the broken ag visa program that has led to a huge influx of illegal immigration.
The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates that there are about 3 million seasonal farmworkers in the country and nearly 1.5 million are here illegally.
"An agreement has been difficult to get to because many grower associations have tried to erode any progress farm workers have made," says Maria Machuca, a UFW spokeswoman. "Grower associations are insisting to Congress that farm workers are currently paid too much. They seek to reduce the wages currently paid to H2A workers and put in place a wage for new agricultural visa holders lower than what current farm workers make."
The growers, on the other hand, say that immigrants are already paid too much and that they cannot agree to any deal that does not address what they call an artificially high wage.
"We are not competing for workers against the farms in our nation. We are competing against farms all around the world. They don't have the environmental regulations we have, they don't have to pay the wages we do," says a spokesman from the Western Grower's Association.
Unions say, however, that the growers have gotten many concessions and that they are using the immigration bill to ensure they continue to get a stream of cheap labor.
"Agribusiness lobby power has kept farm workers excluded from every major labor law for decades. It would be a grievous mistake to allow agribusiness to use the debate over immigration reform to further reduce wages of the poorest workers in the country," Machuca says.
The other disagreement is over how many workers should be allowed to enter the country. Growers argue they don't know exactly how many workers they will need because after 11 million immigrants come out of the shadows, they are not sure who will stay in agriculture and who will pursue other employment.
An idea that has been floated is one similar to what the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO worked out to cap the number of visas given at 200,000 each year, but growers say that may not be enough.
"We want the number [of workers] we need in order to plant, grow and harvest our crops and we don't know what that is yet," a spokesman from the Western Grower's Association says.