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Senate Judiciary Committee agrees on immigration reform bill

Amid major pro-immigrant protests in cities like Los Angeles, the Senate Judiciary Committee finally reached agreement on an immigration reform bill. The legislation is expected to reach the full Senate this week where intense debate is expected. California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein voted for the bill. Our Capitol Hill Correspondent Jill Morrison reports.

Senator Feinstein and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an immigration reform bill under extreme pressure. Majority Leader and possible 2008 Presidential Candidate Bill Frist threatened to put his own bill on the floor that dealt exclusively with border security and law enforcement. But pro-guest worker rallies raged in states like California and there was support from many lawmakers. Feinstein voted for a guest worker program to be put in the bill after weeks of saying she believes migrant workers typically come to the U-S and never go back to their home countries.

Feinstein: There were a lot of hard choices. None of them were easy in this bill. I simply voted as I saw the merit at the time.

Feinstein's greatest victory was the passage of an amendment that would fill agricultural jobs with migrant laborers.

Feinstein: Agricultural work is the toughest of all work. It's a lot tougher than working in a restaurant or construction. It's bendover, it's stoop, it's difficult labor under the hot sun. We all know that.

And these foreign laborers are vital to California's 31 billion dollar agriculture industry.

Feinstein: In our state, California, fifty percent of all the produce in the nation is produced on three percent of the land. It's a huge industry. Employs hundreds of thousand of people.

Feinstein's plan would make undocumented immigrants eligible for blue cards- a special visa to work in agriculture with an eventual path to permanent legal status. Her amendment passed, but is likely to face opposition from Senators like Arizona Republican John Kyl.

Kyl: The concern I have about this amendment is that it appears to have a different target. Instead of having a target of matching willing workers with jobs which can be done with a temporary guest worker program, it appears to be primarily focused on a pathway to citizenship for people here illegally.

Stephen Camarota from the Center for Immigration Studies- a conservative Washington think tank- says businesses don't necessarily need more workers.

Camorata: "Agriculture? Just buy the machines to pick the fruits and vegetables. Construction? You would move more to prefabricated materials. In landscaping, instead of five guys with shovels, get one guy with a backhoe and he digs your holes."

Senator Feinstein also voted to support a program that would allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status and work in industries other than agriculture. The 400,000 guest workers admitted per year would be forced to go through a background check, pay a thousand dollar fine and learn English.

After five years, if they have not been unemployed for longer than forty-five days the workers would become eligible to apply for a green card. And the green card means they would also be eligible for citizenship. Senator Kyl says this is unfair to immigrants waiting in line for visas back in their home countries.

Kyl: Those who came here illegally, would never have to leave the country. They can apply for Green card status and then citizenship. But if I am a person who lives in Mexico for example and I decide I want to come to the United States to emigrate here, get a green card. I have to apply and I'm not entitled to enter except in rare circumstances, I'm not entitled to be in the United States until that status is acquired.

That's one reason the House only passed border security and law enforcement legislation last December. They kept the controversial guest worker provisions out. The Senate faces a tough battle as it tries to pass a bill that includes the labor programs. But the fight is likely to escalate when the Senate and House try to work out their different bills.

Feinstein: I think this bill has a long-long way to go before it reaches any consensus between the two houses. So we'll see how it turns out.

California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer could not be reached for comment. But she did release a statement expressing support for the bill.

Many lawmakers and immigration experts doubt Congress will be unable to pass the controversial legislation in an election year. But the President and leaders in the House and Senate agree the time for some kind of immigration reform is long overdue. From Capitol Hill, Jill Morrison, KPBS News.

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