Sen. Orrin Hatch helped strike a deal Friday that would bring a consistent stream of migrant workers to farms and ranches and make it easier for agricultural workers already here illegally to get right with the law.
He was part of a bipartisan Senate group led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who helped navigate a standoff between farmworker groups worried about wages and growers who wanted more migrant help.
The senators didn’t release details of the agriculture agreement, which will be included in a broad immigration reform proposal slated to be unveiled Tuesday.
But Hatch, R-Utah, said it was an achievement that seemed out of reach a few weeks ago.
"This agreement balances America’s farming needs and the needs of both American and immigrant farmworkers," Hatch said, "and I commend everyone involved for coming together to reach this solution."
Beyond Hatch and Feinstein, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., worked on the framework that sets visa levels and wages for migrant workers.
Rubio and Bennet are part of the "gang of eight" working on the larger immigration reform deal that will include increased border security, a streamlined visa program and a pathway to legal status for the 11 million people here illegally.
Hatch has opposed any pathway to legal status, as have Utah’s other members of Congress, and he doesn’t want his involvement in pieces of the immigration puzzle to be seen as support for the wider deal.
"No one should assume that I’m backing their overall plan," he said Friday.
Earlier this week, Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie criticized Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, for trying to slow down immigration reform by asking for a series of hearings that could take months or even years. Hatch said Beattie’s criticism neglected the work he has done that would benefit business interests.
The agriculture deal is the second piece of immigration reform in which Hatch has played a significant role. Earlier this year, he led negotiations on legislation that would increase the number of foreign-born engineers and scientists who are allowed to immigrate.
That bill would allow foreign students who get a doctorate or master’s degree in a math or science field to gain permanent legal status, and it would expand the number of highly skilled immigrant visas by at least 50,000 each year.
The Utah Farm Bureau Federation applauded the agriculture deal and thanked Hatch for his involvement.
"To see Sen. Orrin Hatch step in and represent a lot of the heartland’s needs was a nice touch," said Randy Parker, CEO of the state’s farm bureau.
He said while California’s and Florida’s farm industry is geared toward fruits and vegetable production, Utah’s agriculture needs focus largely on meat, cows, turkeys and sheep.
Parker said Utah’s farmers and ranchers need seasonal help that most Americans are unwilling to do, and they have struggled to get enough visas to fill those slots with migrant workers.
He defended a faster path to citizenship for agriculture workers.
"They do backbreaking work," Parker said, "and it benefits all of us as Americans."
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