WASHINGTON - 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 farmworkers 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. "I'm very hopeful."
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.
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.
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 legally, and advocates say workers can be exploited and need better protections and a way to earn permanent residence.