Proposed law would give legal status to undocumented farmworkers

By Jessie Higgins
American farmers are struggling to bring in enough migrant farm laborers to meet the industry's needs. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture
American farmers are struggling to bring in enough migrant farm laborers to meet the industry's needs. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Democratic lawmakers from California have introduced bills in both houses of Congress that would give legal status to undocumented farmworkers in the country.

The proposed legislation has widespread support from American farmers who worry about losing their workers.


"It would be a great thing if it got passed," said Brian Garwood, the owner of Garwood Orchards, a fruit farm in northern Indiana. "I just don't have a lot of hope anymore that that will happen."

Legislation like this has been proposed before and never gets far, he said.

"Unfortunately, politics gets in the way and slows things down," said Paul Schlegel, the managing director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Anytime you can get leadership involved and willing to address this problem, that is a positive thing."

The bills (S.B 175 and H.R. 641), drafted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., would allow farmworkers who have been in the fields for at least 100 days in the last two years to apply for a "blue card" to authorize them to work legally in the United States. The workers would have to pass background checks and pay fees. Children and spouses who live in the country also would be eligible.


The House bill is co-sponsored by 58 representatives from 20 states and the District of Columbia. And the Senate bill has 11 co-sponsors, including Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Bernie Sanders I-Vt. Both bills have been referred to committees.

Farmers all over the country have long sought this kind of legislation.

While some commodity crops like corn and soybeans can be harvested by machines, most of the vegetables and fruits that people eat must be picked by hand. That work once was done by Americans, but starting around the 1980s, they stopped taking those jobs.

"We can't get American workers to do it," Garwood said.

Farm laborers usually earn between $13 and $20 per hour. But it's back-breaking work that Americans aren't willing to do, Garwood said. This is true across the country, according to the farm bureau.

The majority of farm laborers in the United States today are from Mexico, Guatemala or other Latin American countries. Some of those workers come in legally through guest worker programs. Others do not.

Many of the undocumented laborers currently working American farms have been in the United States for years -- or decades.

"The top people are the ones who are undocumented," Garwood said. "If you lose them, you're destroyed."


Because of the devastating impact deporting such workers would have on farms all over America, the American Farm Bureau has made immigration reform a top priority, the bureau's Schlegel said.

But, the bureau says the bills do not go far enough to address the immigration issues that plague farmers.

Besides legal status for undocumented workers, farmers need an easier way to bring migrant workers into the country, Schlegel said, noting the current program, called H-2A, is slow, prone to delays and expensive. And only seasonal farms are allowed to take part. So, farming operations -- like dairy -- that would benefit from foreign workers cannot take part.

For that reason, the farm bureau is withholding its support until provisions for a new visa program are added, Schlegel said.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that we can find an answer," he said.

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