‘Blue Card’ bill would give agricultural workers pathway to citizenship
Rep. Jimmy Panetta and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have co-sponsored a bill that would allow agricultural workers an eventual pathway to citizenship as well as provide the agricultural industry with a more stable workforce.
Dozens of lawmakers signed on to sponsor the bill, including more than 20 from California. The ‘Blue Card’ bill could provide a shot in the arm for the agricultural industry, revitalizing an aging and marginalized workforce.
Monterey County’s 2018 ‘Farmworker Housing And Action Plan‘ for the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys shows more than 91,000 agricultural workers lived and worked in the county in 2016. An estimated half of California farmworkers are undocumented and the average age of documented farmworkers is dramatically increasing. As such, the area is in need of an injection of younger, documented laborers.
According to Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot, the temporary agriculture worker program has been an issue for more than a decade in the Salinas Valley.
Farmers have seen labor shortages over past years due to deficiency in H-2A programs and the aging of workers.
Under the ‘Blue Card’ bill, anyone who has already been working in in the field for 100 days over the past two years has the opportunity to apply for the program. That would entitle them, and members of their family, to a work permit and protection from deportation.
After working in the fields for another 150 days a year over three years (or 100 days a year over five years), Blue Card holders would become eligible to apply for legal residency, and later citizenship.
The average of agriculture worker in Monterey County spends 7.5 months working in the field, and has worked for their employer for four years, according to the county. Most workers have only completed primary school, and as farm workers, earn an average income of $25,000 a year.
“It seems since this administration took over the White House, there’s been constant attacks on the immigrant community,” said Leydy Rangel, United Farm Workers Foundation communications specialist. “We know these farmworkers deserve the chance to be able to work without any constant threat to being separated from their families.
“This will also provide agricultural workers with the stable workforce they are looking for,” Rangel said. “We’ll be taking steps to make sure all the representatives who represent agricultural districts sign on to this bill.”
Rangel also cited a new law that went into effect with the new year that reduces the amount of time farmworkers can spend in the field before being entitled to overtime as a positive step. That, she said, was an additional protection for farmworkers she would like to see go nationwide.
The California Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit that works to protect family farms and ranches, commended the ‘Blue Card’ bill Thursday in a press release.
According to CFBF President Jamie Johansson, the bill addresses a critical component of immigration reform.
“Farm employees and farmers need legislation that addresses legal status for employees and their immediate family members who are in the country now,” Johansson said.
“Though this legislation is an important first step, CFBF supports comprehensive immigration reform that would allow future employees to migrate more easily to and from their home country, as well as to move from farm to farm for employment,” he said, urging Congress to continue to address the needs of farmers and employees through a more comprehensive reform of the immigration system.
Feinstein introduced two earlier iterations of this bill in 2013 and 2017, to varying degrees of support. Panetta was a proponent of the 2017 version of the bill.
The bill faced pushback from conservatives, namely former Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who proposed the the Goodlatte Immigration Bill, which allowed American companies to hire 450,000 foreign workers for three years, as long as no U.S. workers could be found who would do those jobs.
Goodlatte’s proposal failed in the House.
“Panetta’s support for this bill hasn’t changed,” said Panetta Press Secretary Sarah Davey. “If the question is why now, it’s because the urgency has only increased. The Trump administration’s guidelines for deportations, the reversal of the Obama guidelines have expanded greatly, so there’s concern that farm workers would be impacted in a way they weren’t in the last few years.
“There’s so much uncertainty in the district and across the county,” continued Davey. “Supporting the bill will give more certainty back to them and start a conversation about our broken immigration system.”
Davey added that many farm workers have been already living in Monterey County for so long that they’ve contributed as much to the economy as any other resident.
“Giving them the opportunity to get on a pathway to citizenship,” said Davey, “Is a focus and a priority.”