COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM ACT OF 2006--Continued -- (Senate - May 22, 2006)
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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I compliment the Senator from New Mexico. He has approached this very contentious and very complicated issue in a very thoughtful way, looking at realities and numbers. I appreciate his observations today. His proposal, and an amendment he offered that was adopted last week, changes the numbers. I am not going to stand here on the floor as an advocate of the legislation and suggest we have gotten it right, but we spent a great deal of time attempting to get it right, recognizing the importance of the migrant labor force inside the American economy and, at the same time, recognizing the wishes of the American people to make it a transparent legal process with secured borders. That is what they are asking of us. I hope, as we finalize this legislation this week, that is the outcome of it before we send the bill to the President for his signature.
I have come to the Chamber this afternoon to talk once again about an issue that is before us. The Presiding Officer is the author of the amendment. Again, it is one that, in part, is a bit technical. I suggest this afternoon in my opposition to the amendment that it is predicated on what I hope are appropriately the unforeseen consequences of this amendment and the impact it would have on American agricultural employment.
Last Thursday night, Senator Chambliss opened the debate on his amendment, and I talked about its impact on the users of the H-2A agricultural guest worker program. To get right to the bottom line, my argument is that the Senate should keep the provision that is in the bill now and deny Senator
Chambliss the success of his amendment. Why? A deal doesn't necessarily have to be a deal, but at the same time, over the course of the last 4 years, in negotiating with agricultural employees and agricultural employers, we attempted to bring some rationale to a method of compensation under the H-2A program that simply in most opinions was out of touch with reality. It was escalating on an automatic basis every year, and it simply was not fitting the need, especially when more and more in agriculture were illegal and were not under that program.
Now a small minority actually, some 40,000-plus a year, are under the H-2A program and identified with the wage set by that program. It is possible--and we are not sure--but a million-plus are not and are simply out there in the marketplace bidding for a salary that, in most instances, is below the H-2A adverse wage that is proposed.
So what did we do? Recognizing that disparity, we reached back, with the agreement of all of the parties involved, and said that one of the pieces of getting this puzzle right was to freeze that wage in 2003 at the 2002 level, and that is what is in the bill. So that pushes that wage scale back substantially for a period of 3 years while we look at what Senator Chambliss has attempted to do in his legislation in developing a prevailing wage for American agricultural employers and employees that fit into this guest worker category.
I don't know that we, with all of the different categories of wages, can automatically put it all under one at this time. Of course, that is what the Senator attempts to do. The agriculture section of S. 2611, as I said, immediately drops that wage down, and then over a period of 3 years, we look at it and adjust as the program is adjusting because we are not going to have everybody inside the program once it becomes law for a period of several years as the program adjusts and as we work our way through and people begin to qualify under the blue card system that we proposed to become legal workers and have permanent visas for the purpose of moving back and forth across the border as guest workers to work in American agriculture.
What I have attempted to do and what I am attempting to understand is what in the bill is now the best deal for American agriculture. That is one reason I believe a vote on the Chambliss amendment is not a good deal for American agriculture at this moment. But that is not the only reason. Let me talk about the rest of agriculture, the million-plus who will now be affected by the Chambliss amendment if it is to become law, because I see that as the rest of the story, and the rest of the story deals with the blue card and the blue card transitional program, the earned status which is a part of the whole of this program. It isn't just a matter of putting in a wage; it is a matter of how that wage ultimately affects the transition into a blue card status.
We have done a pictorial chart tonight that I think better explains what we are talking about.
We believe the blue card built within the agricultural jobs is that transitional tool which allows American agriculture to cross the chasm, if you will, and allow a reformed H-2A program, a guest worker program, to come into being. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen under the law, and it will happen with a wage scale that is pushed back as we make sure we get it right. That is under the reform program.
The second part of the agricultural jobs is a one-time-only program, right here, a blue card. It will last for a specific period of time while we are transitioning the illegals here today into a legal status so they can continue to work and move back and forth across the border in a guest worker program.
The blue card program is a critical piece of the agricultural job solution. It is an essential transition program. Let me repeat, agriculture needs this blue card if we don't want to throw it immediately into havoc because agriculture, whether we like it or not, based on an H-2A law that didn't work at all well and a very transparent border, has grown increasingly dependent on an illegal workforce.
There are no wage requirements for blue card workers in the bill. It is only the 40,000-plus H-2A we shove back. They are paid whatever the farmer is paying, whatever the current wage is in the area, and other workers are gaining. And those wages would differ from place to place and job to job, farm to farm.
What the Chambliss amendment does, however, is it says that blue card workers must be paid a prevailing wage. It pushes the base up substantially. The Chambliss amendment doesn't just deal with the wages of the H-2A program, the 40-plus, it applies the same fix to every farmer who employs a blue card transitional worker.
Now, why is that significant? Here is why: By definition, the prevailing wage is neither the lowest nor the highest wage; it is just about in the middle or between the two. It is the 51st percentile in wages. So even if a farmer is paying a lower wage for a particular job, if he hires a blue card worker, if the Chambliss amendment becomes law, he is going to have to pay the blue card worker a higher wage than he is currently paying today. And if the Chambliss amendment is adopted, the lower 50th percentile of wages, that is the figure that becomes the calculating base for the next year. While you freeze for 3 years and let the wage scale work as it is, the Chambliss amendment begins to ratchet the wages up, setting them at a 51st percentile level. I don't think American agriculture has that one figured out yet.
What could ultimately happen is that we lose the value of the transition of the blue card, especially when it comes to vegetable crops and crops that can move very quickly out of this country that aren't mechanized and are labor intensive. Already, we are beginning to lose those farmers because the worker isn't there. If all of a sudden that wage scale shoots up under the Chambliss bill, as I propose it will, to a prevailing status, my guess is not only will you not have the worker but you will not have the producer out there in the field simply because they will not be able to afford to pay that wage in a competitive way. More and more of our production, tragically enough, I believe will go south of the border in some of these areas. Much of that production today happens outside the United States.
So I think when we are talking about what sounds like a good idea, we better put it in the context of what the bill is really about; that is, the transitional time of 2 to 3 years of blue card workers who are in the market today working at a variety of wages, depending upon the particular job, the particular type of agriculture, and all of a sudden establishing a whole new wage base substantially above where they are being paid but, as the Senator from Georgia would argue, below H-2A. But remember, once again, only about 45,000 workers are in H-2A, and there are well over a million who are all of a sudden going to be affected by the blue card status and by the Chambliss amendment. So it is tremendously important that we bring this into context.
Now, that is not going to be just a couple of workers, as I said. That is nearly 70 percent of the current agricultural workforce we believe to be undocumented. Not all of those workers are going to qualify for the blue card program, but a lot of them will. Our blue card program envisions that it could go as high as, over a 3-year period, 1.5 million, and if I am not mistaken, those higher wages won't be limited to the blue card worker.
But what the Senator from Georgia is doing is setting a new, higher floor for all agricultural employment. Somehow, you are talking about inflating the wages of a large percentage of the American agricultural workforce. I am not against higher salaries. I am for a fair salary. What I am concerned about in particular is labor-intense areas, and those crops will simply cease to exist and they will go south of the border, to Chile or somewhere else. In areas of agriculture that are highly mechanized, there will be limited to no effect. And it is that which I believe we have to put into context.
So what is the result? The result is that employers, in my opinion, won't be able to afford blue card workers. Is that the intent of the Senator from Georgia? I don't think so, but I believe it is the unintended consequence we are talking about and something I think my colleagues need to understand.
Part of that was the discussion over the last 4 years. This is something which didn't just come up yesterday. There were 4 years of negotiation between the employer and the employees as to how to get an H-2A wage right. We had the adverse wage for a lot of reasons, such as because of where agriculture was located and because housing wasn't available. There were a lot of things that were brought into that discussion. We know our country has changed since the creation of the first H-2A law. And while there are still other benefits tied to the wage, that is why we could effectively negotiate rolling that wage back and allowing American agriculture and the employers in American agriculture to effectively look at what we were doing and strike the kind of balanced margin that is necessary.
What happens? What happens if the blue card is removed? I am going to argue tonight that the Chambliss amendment has the effect of removing the blue card substantially because it inflates that lower wage base significantly. What happens if it is removed? The bridge that is the chasm we cross as we transition with American agriculture into a legal--a legal--guest worker program goes away. That is what I am worried about, dramatically worried about, and that is why I am urging my colleagues to vote against the Chambliss amendment because I think if that goes away, there is no transition. Within a very short time, even under tight labor conditions today, because our borders are getting tighter and because of shifts in the workforce, this drives that workforce even further out of the ability to be hired by much of American agriculture. I think it is tremendously important that we look at all of that and understand it.
Here is something else that is ironic. The Chambliss amendment creates a federally mandated wage base for American agriculture. Some will argue that we have done it in a couple of other areas, but most of us will say the market ought to work. It was only in the unique status of H-2A that we had a different kind of wage base. I will argue today, and I think appropriately so, that we are setting an entirely new standard for 70 percent of the American workforce. Instead of allowing us to make sure that it fits right in the program, looks at the diversity, looks at the kind of representation that is reflected all over the United States when it relates to where you are working, how you are working, the type of work you are doing--is it piecework, are you doing it by the
amount produced instead of by the hour of work--all of that kind of thing works today, and I am not so sure it is not effectively distorted by the proposal which is being offered by the Senator from Georgia.
That is why I hope my colleagues would stay with us and stay with what is in the bill and in the provision that we call AgJOBS, that rolls back--on 40,000-plus workers qualified under the H-2A program, rolls their wage back to the 2002 level, freezes it for 3 years, while the Department of Labor, working with American agriculture, can get this right because I am convinced that the unintended consequences of now mandating a Federal floor, if you will, to American agriculture is not where we want to go.
If we want American agriculture to transition across this chasm, to get its workforce legalized, as it wants and as the Senator from Georgia and I want, then we have to make sure the transition which allows that to happen effectively uses this tool, the blue card, which will allow that kind of transition to go forward in a way that causes us to adjust.
We can't take the blue card off the table. I will argue that in the end, if the Chambliss amendment passes, we have taken that worker out of the workforce. That is not going to be good for American agriculture. That is not going to be good for the crops that are rotting in the fields today if, by that action, we now have a Federally mandated prevailing wage which brings that wage rate up across the board in a way that disallows American agriculture from being competitive.
I believe those are the critical points involved in the difference between where we are and where we know we need to get. We need to get there in a way that allows the worker to be treated fairly, the producer to be treated fairly, and most importantly that we have an available, legal workforce to meet the needs of American production agriculture. That workforce is at risk today, and with the passage of the Chambliss amendment, significantly changing the base rate, it will be at even greater risk as production agriculture looks where it needs to farm to be competitive in a world market. It may not be on the soil of this great country, and that would be the wrong thing for us, the wrong thing for our country, and certainly for our consumers. So I hope my colleagues will look at that and consider it as we deal with this issue.
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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I don't think he and I disagree. My concern is you are affecting 1.5 million workers by your immediate action, and I am affecting 40,000-plus in rolling them back. And we are giving a period of transition of 3 years to get right what you have proposed. My concern is that in getting right what you proposed, you have an immediate effect on the next phase of agricultural jobs, and that is the transitional period of time in qualifying the blue card worker to become a permanent worker or a permanent legal worker, and that immediately inflates the wage base. And then immediately upon inflating it once, you inflate it again the next year and the next year because you have lifted the base, ratcheted it up by each year's calculation. I think that is a very legitimate concern. So I ask you, is that not the impact of what you do? I am affecting 40,000-plus; you are affecting 1.5 million.
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Mr. CRAIG. Inside the AgJOBS Act there is a U.S. labor pool established. They would pay the going wage. They have to make sure that pool is exhausted so U.S. citizen agricultural workers are protected. You go there first before you go to hire a blue card worker or a H-2A-qualified worker.
I hope the Senator understands that they are protected in that sense, as it relates to making sure that they are the first in line, if you will, for a job that is available if they would choose to work in that field at the wage that exists at that point.
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