by Alex Meneses Miyashita
The Democratic-led 110th Congress got off to a quick start during its first week of session, moving forward on two piecesof legislation it says will benefit the Hispanic community: minimum wage and AgJOBS.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved Jan. 10 by a 315-116 vote an increase in the minimum hourly wage from $5.15 to $7.25. It consists of three increases of 70 cents each over a two-year period.
Senate Democrats have said they will take action on the minimum wage this month. Its version of the bill is expected to contain a provision that would cut taxes to small businesses to assuage opposition by Republicans and some business owners.
All 22 Latino Democrats of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and GOP members from Florida lleana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balartand Mario Díaz-Balart voted in favor of the raise.
The other voting member of the Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.) opposed it.
Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, said, “A minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour would improve the economic conditions for more than 1.3 million Latino workens and give them a better chance to provide for their families.
While hailing the raise, NCLR also called for renewal of the Workforce Investment Act, designed to improve the skills of the labor force, such as English literacy for workers with limited English proficiency.
The minimum wage has not been raised since 1997.
Democratic and Republican members in both chambers of Congress introduced legislation Jan. 10 that would legalize the status of millions of undocumented farm workers in the United States. It would include a guest worker program.
The so-called AgJOBS bill was introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Mel Martínez (R-Fla.) and Larry Craig (R-ldaho). In the House, it was introduced by Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah).
Its sponsors expressed optimism that it will pass this year as a stand-alone bill or as part of a comprehensive immigration reform proposal. The bill had been included as part of the Senateʼs comprehensive immigration reform package that passed the chamber in the 109th Congress.
“I think a comprehensive solution is the best solution,” Feinstein said, but added, “There is an emergency in this country. If we canʼt move a whole bill, we need to move this bill now.”
Senate Democrats have included comprehensive immigration reform in their list of the first ten bills they intend to tackle in this Congress.
Supportens say the bill will address a growing shortage of farm workers in the country. According to Feinsteinʼs office, California
growers reported a 20% decline in their harvesting workforce, adding that as many as 90 percent of the stateʼs agricultural workers are undocumented.
“Itʼs extremely important for agriculture workers to have the opportunity to stabilize their status in this country,- Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, told Weekly Report.
He emphasized, “Weʼre working with farm workers throughout the United States, and with allies in labor and religious communities…to ensure that there is going to be immediate action taken this year.
AgJOBS in a snapshot:
- Undocumented farm workers who prove they have worked in the field for at least 150 hours in the previous two years could apply for a “blue card” for three to five years before becoming eligible for permanent residency.
- In addition, blue card agricultural workers would be required to pay a $500 fine and show a clean police record to be eligible for permanent residency.
- The blue card program would expire after five years, with a 1.5 million cap.
- Blue card holdersʼ spouses and children in the United States would be eligible for temporary legal residency. All blue card holders would be allowed to travel outside of the country.
- The guest-worker component would modify the H2-A program for seasonal workers to meet the needs of the agriculture industry.