Calif. Measure Would Allow Work Permits for Immigrant Farm Workers

Calif. Measure Would Allow Work Permits for Immigrant Farm Workers

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FRUSTRATED by the lack of governmental action on immigration reform, California lawmakers are considering a measure to allow work permits for undocumented farmworkers.

A similar effort died three years ago, opposed by immigrant rights groups and powerful California labor unions, preferring a comprehensive national approach to immigration issues.

But a divided Congress did not overhaul the nation’s current immigration laws.

“Here we are three years later, and we can’t wait any longer,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), who introduced the current bill.

“Different organizations continue to look to Washington. Meanwhile, it’s our families back home, especially those working in agriculture, who are suffering the most, with no solution in sight,” Alejo said.

The legislation, which is supported heavily by California farmers, sailed through the Assembly in June and is pending in the state Senate.

The bill would create a group to seek authority for the proposed program from the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of Justice. It is different from existing guest worker programs, Alejo said.

Rather than granting temporary work visas to foreign laborers, as some federal programs do, Alejo’s proposed program would give permits to undocumented individuals who already live in the state and work in agriculture.

The laborers and immediate family members—spouses and children under 19 or enrolled at an accredited institution—could remain in California without the threat of deportation. Workers would have to be at least 18 years old, have performed a minimum amount of agricultural labor in the state and pay a fee to help cover administrative costs.

Felons and those with three misdemeanor convictions would not be eligible for the program.

California farmers who support the bill said they have “been waiting for Washington to act on immigration for nearly three decades.”

They cite a shortage of agricultural laborers in the state and the cumbersome nature of federal guest worker programs such as the H-2A visa, which allows foreign laborers into the US to work on farms on a temporary or seasonal basis.

“We are used to being individual businessmen—we see a problem and fix it,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

“The federal government, particularly members of Congress, are reluctant to allow individual states to conjure up 50 different immigration plans, but if they are unable to create a solution, then don’t stop us from doing it,” he said.

Overall, “US-born citizens do not want to pick crops,” said David FitzGerald, a professor at UC San Diego and a co-director of its Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, noting that central California farms rely heavily on immigrant labor.

“We have a large population of people who came here to work, not to be any kind of a security threat to anybody,” said Bryan Little, director of employment policy at the California Farm Bureau Association, which supports the Alejo measure. “And they came to work in an industry that needs them badly.”

One of the two Assembly members who voted no on the bill said he did so because immigration policy “lies with Congress.”

“I get really concerned with how much the state Legislature wants to get involved with federal issues,” said Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R- Huntington Beach). “If people want to get involved in immigration issues, they should probably run for Congress.”

Other opponents said existing policies can meet labor needs.

“There are other visa programs available for them, like H-2A,” said Joe Guzzardi, national media director of Californians for Population Stabilization. “I know the agricultural industry says it’s cumbersome and impossible to work with, but I could say it’s cumbersome to file my federal income tax returns…you are talking about big corporations that are saying it’s just too cumbersome.”

Many of the labor and immigrant rights groups who opposed the 2012 proposal have not taken a stand on the current plan.

Groups such as the California Labor Federation and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund wrote in opposition to the 2012 bill that it was “unlikely to receive the needed federal authority and would give immigrant families false hope.”

This time, the groups are not arguing.

United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that represents about 4,500 farmworkers, including several hundred in Salinas’ lettuce industry, was not involved in the previous debate but recently sent Alejo a letter in support of his bill proposal.

Since 2012, President Obama has used his executive authority to advance immigration issues, leading some experts to suggest that a California pilot program would be authorized if the bill passed.

However, Utah passed a work authorization program in 2011 that has yet to be implemented four years later. The starting date has been pushed back twice.

Utah Sen. Curt Bramble (R-Provo), a sponsor of the measure proposal, said the delays were “an act of good faith” as lawmakers hoped that the federal government would give the program the thumbs-up.
“We weren’t looking for a legal battle,” Bramble said, adding that federal officials have so far shown no interest in the program.

Utah lawmakers are considering repealing the legislation if the program does not receive a federal waiver soon.

“In the absence of federal action,” said Bramble, who supports California’s efforts, “I think it is incumbent upon the states to try to address the issue.”  (With reports from Los Angeles Times)

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