After weeks of debate — and adjustments — the Senate passed an immigration reform bill on Thursday with bipartisan support. Should it become law, the bill will lead the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants on a 13-year path to citizenship.
The bill now moves on to the House. In the meantime, the Senate bill was applauded by restaurant industry organizations across the board.
The National Restaurant Association's president and CEO, Dawn Sweeney, said it is a critical step.
"America's restaurants support commonsense immigration reform that meets three key priorities: a clear path to legalization, national implementation of the E-Verify employee verification system that preempts inconsistent state mandates, and increased border security that won't harm legal travel and tourism. We will continue to work with members of both chambers to advocate for policies that will allow the restaurant industry to continue its role as a leading jobs creator," she said.
The NRA has been involved in the construction and review of S. 744, "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act," the comprehensive immigration bill drafted by the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight."
Scott DeFife, executive vice president, Policy and Government Affairs, NRA, said the NRA has been working with House of Representatives members on the E-Verify issue, among other bills. The association has backed H.R. 1772, "Legal Workforce Act," as a model employment verification system.
International Franchise Association president and CEO Steve Caldeira said the organization is "pleased" with the Senate bill, but is also hoping for a better E-Verify program and strengthened w-visa language before it becomes law.
"The 'Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013' works to address many of the current and future labor needs of our businesses, while offering opportunity to improve upon the bill in some key areas," he said.
Specifically, the IFA wants stronger e-verify language, such as that in H.R. 1772, to be included. This, Caldeira says, will provide stronger protections to employers in the hiring process.
"When America's 825,000 franchise establishments and the countless small business owners who rely on immigrant workers thrive, the rest of the economy grows with it. Immigrants add value as essential workers, new customers and job-creating entrepreneurs," he said. "Meaningful reform will allow the United States of America to remain competitive and usher in a new era of prosperity.
The National Council of Chain Restaurants' Executive Director Rob Green said the Senate bill is a "significant step" toward sensible immigration reform. Like the IFA, however, the council has reservations about specific elements of the employment verification framework presented by the Senate.
"NCCR will continue to work to ensure that important improvements are made to the bill as the legislative process continues. We will continue to work with our members and coalition partners to ensure that the bill is furthered strengthened in the U.S. House of Representatives," Green said.
From the viewpoint of the agriculture industry, United Fresh applauded the bill and its inclusion of agricultural labor provisions that "secure access to a stable, legal workforce."
"This bill will ease the burden on agricultural employers, create more jobs along the entire supply chain, and boost the economy. We appreciate the efforts of our allies in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition and United Farm Workers with whom we worked to advance provisions that will provide a legal and stable workforce for fruit and vegetable growers," said Tom Stenzel, United Fresh CEO.
According to United Fresh, there are several key agricultural labor provisions included in the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate:
- Current undocumented farm workers will be eligible to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to continue working in agriculture.
- Ag workers who can document that they worked in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours prior to Dec. 31, 2012, can adjust to the new Blue Card status.
- After a minimum of five years, workers who fulfill their Blue Card work requirements in U.S. agriculture will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions, and pay a fine.
- A new agricultural guest worker program will be established, with two work options: An "At-Will" option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific job offer from an authorized agricultural employer, under a three-year visa. Employees will then be able to move within the country, working "at will" for any other authorized agricultural employer during that time. Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance to these workers; and a "Contract-Based" option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific contract for a specific amount of work from an authorized employer. This will also provide for a three-year visa, and require employers to provide housing or a housing allowance.
- All guest workers will be paid an agreed-upon wage under the terms of this agreement.
- There is a visa cap for the first five years of the program while current workers are participating in the Blue Card program. The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to modify that cap if circumstances in agricultural labor require.
- The new program will be administered by the Department of Agriculture.
The House of Representatives is expected to take up immigration reform in July.
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