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California lawmakers weigh in on temporary worker visas

Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher says guest worker visas wouldn't be necessary if certain low-skilled jobs paid enough to attract Americans.
Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher says guest worker visas wouldn't be necessary if certain low-skilled jobs paid enough to attract Americans.
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Congress returns to work this week to talk about sequestration, gun control, and immigration. While lawmakers were in their home districts, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, the AFL-CIO, found agreement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on one area of immigration reform: guest workers.

But the California delegation has opinions of its own on the topic of foreign workers.

Temporary visas for agricultural workers have traditionally enjoyed bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill – particularly from California lawmakers who represent the nation’s salad bowl.

Urban Democrats such as Henry Waxman of Los Angeles support short-term visas. Waxman says agribusiness has a need to hire people when the crops need to be harvested, "and there are people who want to come even though they intend to go back to their homes in another country."

Rural Republicans from farm districts, such as Jeff Denham of Turlock, also approve. Denham says agriculture is the biggest part of California's economy and must have a temporary worker program "for the future."

The agreement reached between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber reaches beyond just farm workers and addresses jobs in other “lesser-skilled occupations.” That might include anything from car washers to hotel maids to busboys.

Republican Congressman Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita supports visas for non-agricultural workers.

"There are jobs that these people are doing that other people won’t do," he says. People are happy for the work and employers "are happy to have them work. I think you just need to work out a system to make it done legally."

But Congressman Dana Rohrabacher disagrees. The Republican from Huntington Beach says there are lots of Americans who’d like those jobs.

"If they paid more money because they couldn’t hire people for a pittance because they’re illegal aliens, our people would get more money, Rohrabacher says. "And I believe our Americans should have higher pay."

That’s been a concern for the unions. The agreement between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce gives American workers the first shot at any job openings. It also asks the federal government to use accurate data to determine whether those immigrant workers are actually needed.

Congressman Rohrabacher says he’d only support a guest worker program for agriculture if there was another study: One that examined whether prisoners could pick the produce.

"You’ve got able-bodied men and women out there in these prisons, right there in the middle of our agricultural areas," he says. "And they’re just beefing up in the gym when they could be earning money that they’d get when they’d get out."

Rohrabacher says prisoners could be earning thousands of dollars by the time they are released. And, he adds, "they could help pay for their own incarceration."

Guest workers are just one part of a comprehensive immigration reform package members of Congress are trying to hammer out. Bipartisan negotiations by a small number of members in both the House and Senate will begin again this week.