California ag, UFW hail benefits of immigration bill in Congress

Over 300,000 Valley farmworker, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) dreamers could apply for favorable ‘blue chip’ status

CALIFORNIA – The absence of former president, Donald Trump has now made room for a more favorable approach toward immigration and agricultural labor.

Both California farm groups, the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) and labor groups are supporting President Joe Biden’s action to send Congress an immigration bill early into his presidency. Biden’s plan would grant legal status to both farmworkers and the much maligned “Dreamers”—those who arrived in the United States as children.

Fresno-based Nisei Famer’s League president Manuel Cunha says there are now two bills working their way through Congress on a similar path. Their group has been backing a bill by California Senator Dianne Feinstein that would shield farmworkers from deportation and put them on a path toward earned legal status and eventual citizenship. Whichever bill emerges, it would benefit up to 250,000 Valley farmworkers and about 70,000 Dreamers, some in ag jobs, estimates Cunha.

Cunha added that his family farm group is also excited about the appointment of the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. The Department of Homeland Security is critical to implementing any new immigration regulations that will come out of legislation. Cunha said, “He is an honest man.”

Cunha said he hopes new regulations can be ready by April or May, showing optimism something will pass this time around after decades of stalemate over the contentious issue.

In the past few days, a coalition of 180 groups including the California Farm Bureau called for “strong leadership and bipartisanship” from Congress and the incoming Biden administration, urging quick action on immigration reform. It described immigration laws as “decades overdue for an overhaul” to create a “modern, humane and effective immigration system.”

The UFW announced their support as well. “Farm workers eligible under the legislation would have to pass criminal background checks and show they have labored in agriculture at least 100 days in four of the previous five years. The new president also announced he is simultaneously taking immediate actions, including restoring rights to the Dreamers under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and canceling Donald Trump’s executive orders enforcing immigration policies.

“Under the Biden bill, farm workers with work histories would immediately get legal status, along with Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients,” said UFW president Teresa Romero.

Western Growers added their voice to say that President Biden’s choice to send his bill to Congress in his first week indicates that he is serious about reforming labor in the county’s agricultural sector.

“We are encouraged by the president’s focus on modernizing the immigration system and are confident we can work within his framework to fully address the agricultural labor crisis,” Western Growers said in their statement. “As we did on a bipartisan basis in 2013 and 2019, we will collaborate with our Congressional champions to ensure that the two key needs…an earned pathway to legalization for our existing, experienced workers and a streamlined temporary non-immigrant program that provides a reliable future flow of guest workers.”

Farm groups and labor advocates share the goal to protect the large existing immigrant workforce in the Central Valley for humanitarian reasons as well as practical business reasons—workers are needed to pick the crops. Many have lived and worked here for decades. Farmers point to a shortage of workers in key crop industries.

Advocates argue under former President Donald Trump’s leadership farmworker communities across the country lived and worked in fear and uncertainty due to harsh anti-immigrant enforcement and deportation agenda.

Polling consistently shows broad, bipartisan support for immigrants and immigration reform. Recent polls have found that over 77% of Americans believe that immigration is good for the country and 78% believe DACA recipients should be able to remain in America, and a Fox News poll on Election Day found 71% of Americans support legal status for undocumented immigrants. Historically, strong support has existed for immigration reform that addresses border security, expanded visa programs for high-skilled and agricultural workers and regularizing the status of undocumented immigrants.

Citrus industry, too

Tulare County-based California Citrus Mutual backs this approach.

“The California citrus industry employs over 20,000 people and requires labor nearly year-round. Our long growing season and the need for skilled, hand labor, keeps people working in citrus longer than most other agricultural commodities,” Citrus Mutual stated.

They added that the supply of labor is an issue most citrus growers and packers face at various points of the growing and harvest seasons, in particular when other industries begin to hit their own harvest season. But one of the major problems specific to California ag labor has been verifying the status of the work force.

“Unlike in other areas of the country, the E-Verify system does not work well in California. This is why California Citrus Mutual believes federal immigration reform must be addressed,” Citrus Mutual stated.

Since 2019, when the bill was introduced, farm groups backed the Feinstein approach that would offer a “blue card” to farmworkers that would shield them from deportation. Farmworkers who maintain blue card status for three years or five years—depending on hours worked in agriculture—would be eligible to adjust to lawful permanent residence (green card).

Backing the Feinstein bill in 2019 California Senator Kamala Harris—now vice president—also supported the plan.

“Protecting undocumented farm workers from deportation and giving them a pathway to citizenship will do much to improve their working conditions and bring people out of the shadows. It’s the smart thing to do and the right thing to do,” Harris said.

Blue card

Supporters of the” Blue Card” approach believe that the blue card will solve the problem of undocumented workers in the agriculture industry by making the process of hiring foreigners easier for employers, and also provide a route for farm workers to gain legal status.

Farm workers who are granted a blue card are offered several benefits. Under the bill, immigrants seeking citizenship will have to wait 13 years, while agricultural workers will only have to wait 10 years. “Blue card” status would provide legal temporary U.S. residency, employment and allow the holder to travel outside of the U.S. but would not allow the holder to receive any federal public benefits.

The requirements for a blue card are as follows: have performed agricultural work for at least 575 hours or 100 workdays during a two-year period ending on Dec. 31, 2012; be physically present in the U.S. since Dec. 31, 2012; and an application fee of $100. If they meet this requirement, along with other criminal and admissibility requirements, they will hold “blue-card” status and will be able to apply for LPR status 5 years after the bill is enacted.

Additionally, during the blue card application process, the applicant may not be deported, unless they commit a crime or become ineligible for the status. An employer can employ the applicant without fear of penalty. The blue card status expires after eight years.

Sounding a note of caution the new administration’s proposal to grant legal status, and eventual citizenship to the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. may run into GOP opposition who insist the U.S.-Mexican border must be strengthened before they can back an immigration bill. Also, the US dairy industry wants to ensure they can bring in guest workers if needed.

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