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Published June 27, 2013, 03:48 PM

Senate passes immigration bill

The Senate has passed historic immigration legislation offering the hope of American citizenship to millions, while promising a military-style surge to secure the border.

By: Agweek Staff Report, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate has passed historic immigration legislation offering the hope of American citizenship to millions, while promising a military-style surge to secure the border.

The vote was 68-32, eight more than needed to send the measure to the House. Prospects there are not nearly as good and many conservatives are opposed.

Vice President Joe Biden presided, and senators cast their votes from their desks, both steps reserved for momentous votes.

The bill, a priority for President Barack Obama, would amount to the most sweeping changes in decades to the nation’s immigration laws.

The immigration reform measure strengthens the border security apparatus to discourage the flow of illegal immigrants to the U.S. From the standpoint of farm employers, it creates an entirely new visa category for their workers, both current employees, and prospective new employers. This new visa system will be administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making it easier for farmers and ranchers to access and use. It will also assure a future flow of new workers, so that as the economy evolves and jobs shift between sectors, farmers will have the means to recruit and hire new dairy workers.

“We’ve known for years that the status quo employment situation in dairy farming is not sustainable. Today, the Senate moved decisively past that admission, and voted to change our labor and immigration laws for the better,” says Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Foundation. “Rather than tinker with what wasn’t working, this new immigration measure builds something new and much better.

“Dairy farmers have been concerned that their current workers might be overlooked by the reform efforts, but the Senate bill addresses that concern, by allowing currently employed, but undocumented, workers to maintain their jobs. This is a huge benefit, both to workers, and their employers.”

Kozak notes that regardless of the region of the country, many dairy farmers “face ongoing challenges finding a sufficient number of workers to care for and milk their cows. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to ensuring that American consumers continue to enjoy dairy products on their grocery store shelves.”

Kozak stresses that even with today’s history Senate vote, much more work on immigration reform has to be done this year on Capitol Hill. Negotiations are continuing in the House of Representatives, which is working on a separate bill, and where broad support for a comprehensive immigration reform measure is less certain.

“The key is to demonstrate to a majority of the House that action is needed,” Kozak says. “The bill the House will consider is going to be different than this Senate bill, but the critical thing is that a bill addressing the needs of agriculture must be passed by the House. Inaction is not an option.”

"This legislation makes a serious investment in securing our borders," says Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. "Through an increase in border agents and other measures, there are significant steps in place to reduce the number of people entering our country illegally. Ensuring that we are on a track to finally secure our borders was a top priority of mine.

"I am also incredibly proud that this bill permanently authorizes and enhances the Conrad 30 program. This allows international doctors to remain in the U.S. longer than their visas initially allowed under the condition that they practice in underserved areas such as rural communities. With such a demand in our state, it is common sense to make it easier for talented professionals to come here and practice."