WASHINGTON - Senators working on legislation to rewrite U.S. immigration laws say they've agreed to visa caps and wage levels for a farmworker program, resolving a significant sticking point in their negotiations.
"We have a wage and cap agreement," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and advocate of revamping the program for allocating visas to farm workers, said Thursday in an interview at the Capitol.
Feinstein declined to provide details of the accord, saying only that she and other senators held six hours of talks Wednesday on the topic with farm groups and workers' advocates.
The agreement covers one of several issues - including visas for other lower-skilled and higher-skilled workers, as well as a plan to tie tougher border control with a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States - that a bipartisan group of senators has resolved.
"I feel like we've come together in a fashion that will hold and that we'll have a good product to submit to the Senate for their consideration," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "People will have a chance to amendment it, they will certainly have a chance to read it, they'll have a chance to make it better or try to kill it. But I think we're going to produce a product that I will be proud of."
In a sign that the eight-member group of senators is wrapping up its work on an immigration proposal, they canceled plans to meet Thursday and a person familiar with the talks said only staff-level work and bill-drafting remains.
The group of four Republican and four Democratic senators, who had planned to introduce a bill this week, said they want to unveil the legislation next week.
Over the past several days, members of the group have said parts of the proposal are done or almost complete. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday that senators had finished work on a section providing visas for foreigners who receive a graduate degree from a U.S. university in a high- skilled field such as engineering, mathematics or science.
"We are wrapping everything up," McCain said.
The Senate group's proposal probably will require a trade- off between more job-related visas and an annual allotment of 65,000 visas for adult siblings of naturalized U.S. citizens.
McCain confirmed that the group was "largely in agreement," on a farmworker proposal, adding that there "may be some details that still need to be worked out."
Agricultural labor has been one of the more contentious areas for senators to work out in coming up with an immigration overhaul. Those representing larger growers, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group, have pushed for more visas and lower wage rates than the United Farmworkers Union wants. The farmworkers union is the immigrant- worker advocacy group founded by Cesar Chavez.
While the Farm Bureau has said a flexible visa program is necessary to allow enough visas so that harvest workforces are adequate, the farmworkers' union has said too large of a program would push down wages and encourage employer abuses.
The senators also have agreed on border-protection principles essential to Republican approval of any plan, according to people familiar with the talks. The accord links mandates for tougher border control to opening a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, support a citizenship path, according to A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted April 5-8. The poll found s six-point gap between those who strongly support allowing those in the country illegally to gain citizenship and those who oppose it. Twenty- nine percent said they strongly supported the idea, while 35 percent were against.
Still, the question of border control remains central to any agreement for Republicans, whose party has courted support from its core voters with demands for a crackdown on illegal immigration and deportation of undocumented workers.
"It will be fair, it will be hard, and I think the Republican Party has changed on this issue," another Republican member of the group, Graham said of the agreed-to citizenship path provisions.
Since November, when President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, Republican Party leaders have called for a more sympathetic approach toward immigration in an attempt to re-engage the fastest-growing part of the nation's electorate.
Republican leaders such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida have remained mindful of that base of supporters who have viewed any relief for undocumented immigrants as a form of amnesty for law-breakers.
Rubio and the other senators have tentatively agreed to concepts that draw a connection between strengthening the border and granting new rights to the undocumented, according to two people familiar with the senators' discussions who asked to not be identified in describing the talks.
The principles of the accord would require continuous surveillance of 100 percent of the border, with a 90 percent effectiveness rate for enforcement in high-risk sectors, one person familiar with the talks said. The Homeland Security Department would receive $3 billion and have six months to draft and implement a five-year plan to achieve those goals.
No immigrants could gain provisional legal status until the plan is in place, the person said.
The agency would have no leeway to begin granting permanent residency status until tougher border controls and a system of verifying that companies aren't employing undocumented workers is in place. Also, the government would have to establish an entry-exit system to ensure that people who enter the U.S. on visas leave when they are supposed to.
Under the plan, one of the people said, the granting of green cards couldn't resume even after 10 years if the other conditions hadn't been met. It could take 20 years for some to obtain legal status under the rules in the accord.