Migrant farm workers transplant jalapeno sprouts from trucks into the soil at a farm on March 7, 2018, in Lamont, Calif. Two California Democrats filed legislation that would give undocumented immigrant farmworkers and their families a path to legal resident status and possibly U.S. citizenship. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Democrats propose legal status for undocumented immigrant farmworkers

WASHINGTON — Two California Democrats filed legislation Thursday that would give undocumented immigrant farmworkers and their families a path to legal resident status and possibly U.S. citizenship.

The legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgren is designed to ease agricultural worker shortages and protect undocumented workers already in the United States from deportation. The bills come as the nation grapples with an extended partial government shutdown fueled by an impasse between
President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall and broader differences over immigration policies.

The companion Senate and House bills revive proposals by Feinstein in previous sessions to allow immigrant farmworkers to apply for so-called blue cards from the Department of Homeland Security, which would provide temporary legal status for those who qualify. Applicants would have to undergo background checks, have no criminal records, and pay federal taxes, immigration processing fees and $100 penalty fee to DHS.

The department could begin to adjust blue card workers to lawful permanent residence five years after the law takes effect. Eligible workers would have to have performed either 100 days of agricultural work each year for five years or 150 days of such work each year for three years.

Feinstein and Lofgren said the legislation would address a key labor issue for California and other states with produce and dairy operations that rely heavily on a pool of immigrant workers that is largely undocumented.

Some estimates put the share of agricultural workers in the United States illegally as high as 75 percent.

Feinstein’s bill has 11 co-sponsors, all Democrats, and Lofgren’s bill has 58 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

“By protecting farmworkers from deportation, our bill would ensure that hardworking immigrants don’t live in fear and that California’s agriculture industry has the workforce it needs to succeed,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Despite their significant contributions to California’s economy and communities, farmworkers are a priority for deportation under the Trump administration’s policies.”

Lofgren said the legislation would allow farmworkers to focus on work and their families rather than fearing deportation.

“With this legislation, farmworkers will be able to improve their wages and working conditions, resulting in a more stable farm labor force and greater food safety and security to the benefit of American employers, workers, and consumers,” she said in a statement.

Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for Western Growers, called the legislation “a step in the right direction” although it is unclear how it will fare in a divided Congress.

Resnick said a broader revamping of immigration policy by Congress that makes changes to the H-2A visa temporary guest worker program would also help to address farmers’ labor problems. The Labor Department issues H-2A visas for foreign agricultural workers hired by farmers to do seasonal work, such as harvesting crops.

Farmers complain the program is costly and cumbersome while farmworker groups say it provides inadequate pay and protection for the temporary workers.

Trump alluded to the program during a Jan. 14 speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention.

“You know, when we have proper security, people aren’t going to come, except for the people we want to come because we want to take people in to help our farmers, et cetera,” the president said. “We’re going to make that actually easier for them — to help the farmers. Because you need these people.”

He provided no specifics.

Trump has since repeated versions of those remarks, first on Thursday at the Pentagon and then in a tweet Friday, in which he signaled support for immigration policy changes that would make it easier for seasonal farm workers to enter the United States.

“Could somebody please explain to Nancy [Pelosi] & her ‘big donors’ in wine country that people working on farms [grapes] will have easy access in!” the president said on Twitter.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Agriculture Committee Democrat, said she would like to see Congress work on a comprehensive immigration bill that would address agriculture’s needs as well as other issues. The Senate passed a comprehensive bill in 2013, but the House at the time opted for a more piecemeal approach.

“The real answer is and has always been a comprehensive immigration bill,” Stabenow said. “It’s certainly something we’ve not been able to have a discussion on in the last two years.”

By Ellyn Ferguson, CQ-Roll Call

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