BY ERICA WERNER The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- A tentative deal has been reached to resolve a dispute between agriculture workers and growers that was standing in the way of a sweeping immigration overhaul bill, a key senator said Tuesday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who's taken the lead on negotiating a resolution, didn't provide details, and said that 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 to secure the border and put 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 issue was one of a handful of unresolved issues. There's also still debate over plans to boost visas for high-tech workers.
The group of four Republican and four Democratic senators had been hoping to release the mammoth immigration bill this week but it's not clear that deadline will be met.
At least 50 percent and as much as 70 or 80 percent of the nation's 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 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.