By Richard Cowan and Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, April 11 (Reuters) - U.S. senators negotiating an immigration bill have reached agreement on wages for foreign farm laborers working in the United States and a limit on visas for such workers, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said on Thursday.
Feinstein, of California, refused to provide details on the agreement and added that there were some other issues related to farm workers still to be negotiated.
'We have an agreement on wages and the visa cap,' Feinstein told Reuters. The deal followed a six-hour negotiating session on Wednesday, she said.
The farm worker portion of the bill is seen as the last major bit to be negotiated before Senate legislation is introduced in coming days.
The government estimates that of the 1.1 million workers in agriculture, at least half are undocumented.
An immigration bill, which will attempt a comprehensive update of U.S. policy for the first time since 1986, will try to end years of illegal hiring of foreign workers amid labor shortages in some sectors. It also will aim to put many of the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally - some for decades - on a path to citizenship.
Craig Regelbrugge, a member of an agricultural employer coalition, said 'there are still important issues unresolved.'
A key issue is the legal status for the tens of thousands of
farm workers who entered the United States without documents.
The United Farm Workers union argues they should be given permanent resident status and the opportunity for citizenship. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, representing employers, has suggested that legalization be tied to a commitment to work in agriculture for a specified number of months.
'NEVER MORE OPTIMISTIC'
Farm labor reform has two major parts - a decision on how to treat workers in the country illegally and revamping of the guest worker program. Employers want a new program to replace the H-2A program, which they say makes it difficult to recruit enough workers in a timely manner and sets wages too high. The union has warned against formulas that would depress wages.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday on the comprehensive immigration bill that a group of eight Democratic and Republican senators has been negotiating for months.
While Feinstein is not a member of that group, she has been a lead negotiator on the farm worker portion of the bill, which is very important to California, the nation's largest agricultural producing state.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a leading member of the group of eight senators negotiating the bill, told reporters that it was now 'time to get it finished and introduced.'
When asked when the bill would be unveiled, he said it would happen very soon.
Another Republican senator in the 'gang of eight,' Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said he had 'never felt more optimistic' about an immigration bill moving forward in the Senate.
But he said, 'You always worry that something this complicated and emotional won't make it through.'
Graham added, 'The key is keeping business and labor (unions) together on the guest worker program' that aims to accommodate immigrant workers in agriculture and low-skilled construction workers, hotel maids and restaurant employees.
(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Walsh) Keywords: USA IMMIGRATION/
(Richard.Cowan@thomsonreuters.com)(Reuters Messaging: email@example.com)(202-898-8391)(Reuters Messaging)(firstname.lastname@example.org)
Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. All rights reserved.
The copying, republication or redistribution of Reuters News Content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Thomson Reuters.