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Tentative farm workers deal in immigration talks

Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 9:00 p.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 10:05 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON (AP) — A tentative deal has been reached between agriculture workers and growers, a key senator said Tuesday, smoothing the way for a landmark immigration bill to be released within a week.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who's taken the lead on negotiating a resolution to the agriculture issue, didn't provide details, and said growers had yet to sign off on the agreement. The farm workers union has been at odds with the agriculture industry over worker wages and how many visas should be offered in a new program to bring agriculture workers to the U.S.

But Feinstein said she's hoping for resolution in the next day or two.

"There's a tentative agreement on a number of things, and we're waiting to see if it can get wrapped up," Feinstein said in a brief interview at the Capitol.

"I'm very hopeful. The train is leaving the station. We need a bill."

The development comes as a bipartisan group of senators hurries to finish legislation aimed at securing the border and putting 11 million immigrants here illegally on a path to citizenship, while also allowing tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled foreign workers into the U.S. on new visa programs. The agriculture dispute was the most prominent of a handful of unresolved issues. There's also still some debate over plans to boost visas for high-tech workers.

The group of four Republican and four Democratic senators has been hoping to release the landmark immigration bill this week, possibly as early as Thursday. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leader of the group, said Tuesday that this week remains the goal. But it also looked possible it could slip into next week.

Senators in the immigration group met Tuesday with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who agreed to hold a hearing April 17 on the legislation, Senate aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deliberations were confidential.

That's something Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been calling for in response to pressure from conservatives who argue the bill is being pushed too fast without enough time for debate. Given Judiciary Committee procedures that allow Republicans to push for extra time to review legislation, the committee could begin to vote on and amend the bill the week of May 6, an aide said.

"The Judiciary Committee must have plenty of time to debate and improve the bipartisan group's proposal, so it's good that senators and the public will have weeks to study this proposal," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said.

At least 50 percent and as much as 70 percent or 80 percent of the nation's approximately 2 million farm workers are here illegally, according to labor and industry estimates. Growers say they need a better way to hire labor legally, and advocates say workers can be exploited and need better protections and a way to earn permanent residence.

Senators plan to offer a speeded-up pathway to citizenship to farm workers already in the country illegally who've worked in the industry for at least two years. In addition they're seeking to create a new visa program to bring foreign agriculture workers to the U.S. But wages and visa caps have been sticking points, just as they were for a separate low-skilled worker program that was resolved recently with a deal between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.

After negotiations between the United Farm Workers and agriculture interests, including the Western Growers Association, stalled in recent weeks, the four senators working on the issue — Feinstein, Rubio, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — developed a framework that would ultimately call for the agriculture secretary to set visa levels and wages, according to officials involved in the talks.

But the uncertainty of that structure sparked concern on both sides, and talks between growers and agriculture reopened. There now have been numbers set for wages and where to cap visa levels that the United Farm Workers has agreed to, officials said, although details weren't immediately available Tuesday. But growers emphasized they had yet to sign off.

"We are working diligently on the final details on the important details of the wage and cap and are hopeful, but have not agreed to anything," said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Even in absence of a formal OK from the growers side, Feinstein suggested that the senators were satisfied and would be moving forward with what they've settled on.

"We hope we can get their acquiescence and support, otherwise we just need to proceed ahead," she said.

Meanwhile there were indications that the immigration debate, largely confined to behind-the-scenes negotiations so far, was moving into a more public phase.

Pro-immigrant groups planned rallies around the country and outside the Capitol for Wednesday.

And there was back-and-forth among GOP-leaning groups over the expected cost of a bill, with a conservative think tank, the American Action Forum, releasing a report Tuesday arguing that immigration reform would grow the economy and reduce the deficit, partly because of growth in the labor force. That stood in contrast to a report by the Heritage Foundation released during the last immigration debate in 2007, and expected to be revived again this year, that contended the legislation cost taxpayers $2.6 trillion.

The dispute was more evidence of a split in the GOP, with some favoring comprehensive immigration legislation, and others still strongly opposed.

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Follow Erica Werner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericawerner

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