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Immigration reform still alive

A bill now in Congress could help employers and immigrants alike

The Wall Street Journal

Reports of the death of immigration reform have been greatly exaggerated. Last week a bipartisan bill aimed at seasonal farm workers gained a 60th co-sponsor, which gives it the filibuster-proof margin necessary to pass the Senate these days. All indications are that President Bush would like to sign the reform, known as AgJobs, but first he'll need the Republican leadership to step up to the plate.

The nation's farm economy has long suffered from a shortage of workers willing to do the backbreaking but essential labor that Americans tend to shun. To hire willing foreign migrants today, dairy farmers and crop producers must navigate something called the H-2A guest- worker program. This is no mean feat. The Department of Labor compliance manual runs to 325 pages, and the specifications are notoriously legalistic and time-consuming. A common complaint, supported by General Accounting Office findings, is that applications for the temporary work visas often aren't approved until after the growing season has ended.

It's no surprise, therefore, that more than half of the industry's seasonal labor force is comprised of illegal aliens. And that number is based on self-disclosure worker surveys. Immigration experts say the actual figure is closer to 80 percent. After introducing the AgJobs bill last year, Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho noted that agriculture, more than any other sector of the economy, has become dependent for its existence on the labor of immigrants who are here without documentation.

The current proposal is a welcome acknowledgment of these economic realities. Farm companies are the same as other businesses in preferring a stable and legal work force. And the migrants they employ out of necessity would rather not live in daily fear of being exploited and deported. The AgJobs reforms would put in place worker protections and a streamlined hiring process. The goal is to fix a broken guest-worker program and thereby induce more use of it.

Historically ' as during the bracero programs for Mexican farm workers in the 1950s and '60s ' the most effective way to reduce illegal immigration has been to make legal entry into the U.S. more accommodating. By lessening the flow of illegals and relieving pressure on the border patrol, these reforms would also be a boon for homeland security.

— The most controversial feature of AgJobs is the earned adjustment provision that allows roughly 500,000 undocumented farm workers already in the country to apply for temporary legal status. After satisfying certain work requirements, they would become eligible for permanent residency. Critics call this an amnesty, but it's more accurate to call it a reward for honoring this social contract and contributing to U.S. society. The alternative is mass deportations, which would be politically unfeasible and economically destructive.

Another political reality is that Democrats and labor groups will block any reform that doesn't provide for some sort of earned adjustment. Republicans who reject such provisions but still claim to be in favor of reform are being disingenuous. Essentially, they are defending an immigration status quo that results in hundreds of migrant deaths annually and creates a thriving business for those who deal in human smuggling and false documents.

The ball is now in the court of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who knows the bill is likely to pass if he brings it to a vote. That would put more pressure on foot-dragging House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to do the same. Republicans rightly complain when Democrats deny votes on popular bills. Here's a chance for the GOP to help workers and business, and to act on principle.