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Once again, Feinstein introduces agricultural guest-worker bill

WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Thursday introduced an ambitious agricultural guest-worker bill that faces a harder road than ever before.

Feinstein's legislation to legalize upward of 2 million illegal immigrant farmworkers and their family members resembles similar bills regularly but unsuccessfully introduced since September 2003.

Herself a former opponent of the agricultural guest-worker proposal, Feinstein now says it is needed to keep farms in business. The legislation combines streamlining of the existing but infrequently used H-2A guest-worker program with a legalization plan for farm workers already in the United States illegally.

"There is a farm emergency in this country," Feinstein said in a half-hour Senate speech, and "most of it is caused by the absence of farm labor."

The illegal immigrant farm workers could attain temporary legal status after meeting certain criteria, including a commitment to keep working in agriculture for several years. Eventually, they could apply to become U.S. citizens.

"There are very few Americans who are willing to take the jobs in a hot field, doing backbreaking labor," Feinstein said, "and that's just a fact."

There is much about the 105-page bill that is familiar.

The coalition supporting the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJOBS, remains largely intact. The United Farm Workers of America supports the legislation, as do farm groups like the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The evidence offered in support of the bill is also familiar. Feinstein on Thursday resurrected previously told stories about farmers hurt by worker shortages -- like Lake County pear farmer Toni Scully, whose lost-crop plight was first publicized in 2006. Feinstein used a three-year-old photo of Scully to help make her case.

But a coalition of border-security advocates and other skeptics, too, remains intact, and in some potentially important ways the advocates have lost clout.

The original Republican co-author of the AgJOBS effort, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, has since retired, his reputation tarnished by an arrest in an airport men's room. So far, none of the 17 Senate co-sponsors of Feinstein's bill are Republican.

The original Democratic author and a longtime force in immigration politics, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, is all but out of commission with brain cancer. Kennedy has missed 69 of the last 73 Senate votes taken since April 1, Senate records show.

Legislation supporters insist even getting the bill introduced is an important step forward.

"You've got to put your marker down," said Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. "You've got to be prepared."

Nonetheless, immigration overall currently lacks the kind of public visibility that usually is the prerequisite for legislative action on such a contentious issue.

By October 2008, only 5 percent of voters identified immigration as the most important issue in their presidential vote. Even among Latino voters surveyed by the Pew Hispanic Center in January, immigration lagged behind the economy, education, healthcare, national security and the environment in the ranking of important issues.

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