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Congress likely to begin showing its cards on immigration reform this month

Washington — News that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO struck an agreement on principles for a guest worker visa program sound encouraging, but it's far from clear what this means for the overhaul of the agricultural worker visa program.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO agreed on how many visas should be offered and how much those workers should be paid, according to a report from the Associated Press. The proposal would allow 20,000 visas for low-skilled workers that would gradually grow to 200,000.

While the news is encouraging, the agreement does not have an impact on agriculture directly, explained Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers and a member of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition. The agreement for H-2B visas does include some sod farms, packinghouses and other businesses that may be helped by the breakthrough.

"We still don't know where we are in agriculture," Mr. Gasperini explained. "Next week, when Congress returns, we should know better," he said.

The "gang of eight" senators who are working on a piece of comprehensive immigration reform may unveil their proposal when Congress returns from its two-week spring recess, and another group in the House is working on their own package of reforms.

The White House is also applying pressure. "The [Obama] administration wants it done quickly," he added.

In the meantime, the coalition is pushing to make sure employers can legally hire the current 1.5 million workers as a comprehensive immigration reform law is expected to tighten hiring practices for employers.

The coalition also is lobbying for a new visa program to replace the broken H-2A system and a wage rate based on realistic wages with the U.S. Department of Agriculture participating in the process, he said.