Thursday, July 1, 2004
New federal legislation intended to secure agricultural labor in the Salinas Valley and the rest of the US, which may reach the US Senate floor this month, could help the ag industry as well as the lives of immigrant workers.
Two identical bills—Senate Bill 1645 and House Resolution 3142—were introduced last September by two Republicans, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho and Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah. The proposed legislation, collectively called the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS), would dramatically alter the agricultural guest-worker program.
AgJOBS would, among other changes, allow undocumented farmworkers already working in the United State to gain temporary resident immigrant status right away. They could then earn permanent resident immigrant status by completing additional agriculture employment over the next three to six years.
This permanent resident immigrant status would also apply to the farmworker’s spouse, and children under 18.
Both bills have received bi-partisan support—Rep. Sam Farr co-sponsored HR 3142—as well as strong backing from groups that normally can’t agree on anything: the United Farm Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions have joined hands with the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, among other ag industry groups.
“They have problems on both ends,” Farr says. “The growers are saying we have a shortage of labor; the UFW is saying we have a shortage of people joining the union because they aren’t citizens. This bill is a political compromise that comes from the agricultural communities.”
The two bills are currently in committee, but according to Farr, the House is unlikely to act until the Senate moves the bill to a vote on the floor. That is slated to happen in July.
Sixty-two Senators signed on as bill co-sponsors, so AgJOBS already looks like a slam-dunk in the Senate.
Many local growers agree that a constant, cost-effective base of agricultural workers is vital to the industry’s continued prosperity. Agriculture, always Monterey County’s largest industry, continues to expand—crops totaled $3.29 billion in 2003, a 16 percent increase over 2002.
Bob Nielsen, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of the local ag giant Tanimura & Antle, says he has met with Farr and other co-sponsors in Washington, and says his company supports the AgJOBS bill.
“It’s a tailored response to the issue, in that it just deals with agriculture and it doesn’t attempt to address other issues surrounding workers coming into the country,” Nielsen says.
In fact, one of the reasons AgJOBS has received support from both ends of the political spectrum is that most Americans do not want the jobs the legislation addresses. So AgJOBS won’t steal jobs from American citizens.
“I don’t know what they mean when they say any bill would take jobs away from Americans,” Nielsen says. “But listening to the remarks by Senator [Larry] Craig, when he introduced the bill, he said that at least half of the agriculture workforce in this country was undocumented. He said private studies indicate even more—three-quarters to 85 percent.
“The reality is that agricultural work is demanding; it’s entry-level work. Historically in this county immigrants have done a lot of the agricultural work and then moved up the economic ladder. Their children go on and do other kinds of work. That is happening with Mexican fieldworkers in the US—their children go on to college and enter other professions.
“But in other times in our history, it’s been Filipinos and Japanese. The Tanimura family came here and worked in an entry-level capacity and worked their way up the system.”
Paul Johnston, executive director for the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, says AgJOBS would bring immigrant farmworkers in the Salinas Valley out into public life.
“It would be extraordinary, not only for farmworkers in the Salinas Valley, but throughout the state,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of people would be coming out of the shadows, putting together their documentation and seeking to participate in the community. It would probably unleash a movement towards legalization.”
However, this broader idea of full-blown amnesty for undocumented migrants living in the US is what worries some of the bill’s opponents—and promises to be a contentious issue in an election year.
Cannon, the Salt Lake City Republican who authored the House version of AgJOBS, had to fight a major smear campaign led by anti-immigrant groups to retain the Republican Primary in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District last week. Critics attacked Cannon’s “liberal views on illegal immigration.”
“He was demonized in TV ads,” Farr says, “and he won by a very narrow margin.”
Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, says the legislation is “definitely a good thing” for the Salinas Valley, but acknowledges the potentially explosive nature of the immigration issue makes the bill “a political hot potato that people are afraid to touch.”
“I know you get people on one end of the scale [who say] ‘what part of illegal don’t you understand?’ And yet I’m sure that no one could imagine some sort of organized effort to track down all the people who are here illegally and deport them. We have to have some way to deal with the numbers of people who are here illegally. And pragmatically, we have to deal with the workforce issue.”
Farr says he’s confident President George Bush will sign AgJOBS.
“I hope we have the political guts to pass this bill before the election,” he says. “To me this is win-win. You stabilize the workforce in our area, and you stabilize this underclass society that has to live in the shadows of the law, who are easily taken advantage of. The current system is not good for the individual from a humanitarian standpoint, and it’s not good for business because high risk is low gain.”