California’s Democratic senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation Wednesday that would put some illegal immigrant farmworkers on a path to citizenship and revamp a little-used agricultural guest worker program. Calling the measure a “matter of survival for farmers across the country,” the L.A. Times reports.
In California, nearly 1 million undocumented laborers work California’s 76,500 farms, making up about 90% of the state’s agricultural payroll. The get tough policies initiated at the U.S.-Mexico border has left farmers scrambling for enough hands at harvest time. This has only be compounded as undocumented workers tend to leave agricultural work for higher-paying jobs in the construction, restaurant and hospitality industries, where they can easily secure better jobs.
The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that losses for California would start at $3 billion a year and could climb as high as $4.1 billion if the labor shortage continues. At the present California farms generate $34 billion in revenue a year.
The proposed legislation would allow illegal immigrants who have worked in agriculture for at least 150 days over the last two years to receive a “blue card,” which would entitle them to temporary legal resident status. A maximum of 1.5 million blue cards would be distributed over five years, when the program would end. They would be allowed to travel in and out of the U.S. To be eligible to apply for permanent legal resident status, they would have to continue doing farm work 150 days a year for an additional three years, or 100 days a year for an additional five years. Applicants would have to pay $500 and show that they are up-to-date on their taxes, and must not have been convicted of any serious crime.
The bill proposed by Feinstein and Boxer would also reconstitute the H-2A guest worker program, making it easier and less expensive for growers to use and to protect them from lawsuits. The current program is a bureaucratic nightmare and consists of more than 300 pages of regulations, requiring farmers to go through 60 different steps to get workers from abroad. At the moment, only 2% of all farmers use the H-2A guest worker program because it is so difficult to negotiate.
I applaud Senators Boxer and Feinstein for making this move to help their farmers, but I think we need to be realistic about how much long-term good this will do. Any “path to citizenship” means they are creating a path out of agricultural work. Why not create a temporary farm visa that is just that–a simplified way to legalize farm workers to want to work occasionally, then go home. Otherwise, the program will work like the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and feed the immigration pipeline with low-skilled people who will become permanent residents and then move onto better paying work.