New ‘Blue Card’ Proposal Would Protect Farmworkers from Deportation

Trump’s immigration policies are crippling farms’ ability to hire workers. Can this proposed legislation counter that and gain support?


[Update: On May 25, Representative Luis Gutiérrez introduced HR 2690, the House companion bill to Senator Feinstein’s Agricultural Worker Program Act. The House bill has 29 co-sponsors, all Democrats, from states that include California, New York, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Massachusetts and Michigan.]

Undocumented farmworkers are the backbone of the United States’ agriculture industry, a situation that has long posed numerous challenges for these workers, their families, and employers. But the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies and aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) action—which has detained farm workers in New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere—has created a climate of fear among workers. And that’s already resulting in labor shortages that are prompting some growers to curtail harvest plans.

On a call with reporters, Monterey Mushrooms president and owner Shah Kazemi confirmed the labor situation. “We’re currently short hundreds of workers,” he said. “We have been forced to cut back our production because people are not showing up to work out of fear. “If we don’t have a way to fix our broken immigration system, I don’t think agriculture can survive in this country,” said Kazemi.

To help protect these farmworkers, Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont have introduced the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2017 (S. 1034). The bill would protect undocumented immigrants with a history of work in U.S. agriculture from deportation and provide them with a path to long-term legal residence and citizenship.

“Wherever I go in California,” and talk to famers, said Senator Feinstein on a call with reporters, “they tell me they can’t find workers—that workers are scared, afraid they will be picked up and deported. They have disappeared.”

“The people who feed us should have an opportunity to work here legally,” she continued. “That’s what we do in this bill we are proposing.”

The program proposed in the bill would work like this:

Farmworkers who can prove at least 100 days of employment in U.S. agriculture over the last two years could apply for a “blue card” granting temporary residency and authorization to work, subject to security, law enforcement, and other conditions. A blue-card worker’s spouse and children would also be eligible for blue-card status—subject to residency and other requirements—but not the work requirements.

A blue card holder who works in agriculture for 100 days a year for each of the next five years or 150 days for each of the next three years would be eligible to earn a green card or permanent legal resident status. Those who have held green cards for five years and meet other requirements would be eligible to apply for full citizenship.

“Although the bill is mostly focused on the field workers, it incorporates definitions of agricultural employment that are actually broader, so undocumented poultry and meat processing plant workers would be included,” explained Farmworker Justice president Bruce Goldstein. A farm’s packing-house workers would also be covered by the bill.

The bill would operate separately from the H-2A agricultural guest-worker visa program, and provide people with more freedom. The H-2A program enables farms to hire foreign workers seasonally, but only allows them to be employed by the farm sponsoring their visa—and provides no path to ongoing legal work status, residency, or citizenship.

Support from Both Growers and Farmworker Advocates

While it’s still early days for the proposed legislation, growers and farm labor advocates alike are intensely interested in solving what has become an increasingly pressing problem under the Trump administration..

Western Growers, which represents farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico who together grow more than half the country’s fresh produce, has not taken a position on the bill, but “supports the blue card concept,” spokesperson Stephanie Thara told Civil Eats via email. “This is a program that Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and CEO, pushed for in the 2013 Immigration Reform bill that did not pass. However, we would like to see an immigration bill that takes care of existing farmworkers and creates a workable program to enable the future flow of labor to American farms,” she explained.

More than two dozen Western Growers members were on Capitol Hill earlier this month, said Thara, meeting with legislators from the House and Senate (both Democrats and Republicans), cabinet officers, and officials at the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. “We are hopeful that those members of the legislature who are working on agricultural immigration legislation accelerate the process because time is definitely of the essence and our labor situation has reached a critical stage,” said Nassif in a statement.

The American Farm Bureau Federation’s environment and energy policy director Paul Schlegel, offered somewhat less enthusiastic support. “We haven’t opposed the blue card idea in the past,” said Schlegel, noting the bill’s similarity to legislation introduced in 2013 and previous measures dating back to the 1990s. “We welcome any senators trying to work with ag to solve our problems,” he said. “Anything we can do to get Congress to enact a bill that addresses these issues”—including stability in the agricultural workforce and ensuring an ongoing flow of farmworkers.

For a blue card program to gain Republican support, Schlegel suggested, it would need to be considered along with the H-2A worker program. In the past, he added, Republicans “have been pretty clear” about accompanying a blue card program with “increases in enforcement”—verifying workers’ legal status when hiring and border enforcement.

“I think it’s a great starting point,” said National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition (NSAC) senior policy specialist Paul Wolfe. “It starts the conversation and could bring parties to the table to talk about a comprehensive package. We’ve been hearing pretty terrible and scary things from our members about what’s going on in agricultural and migrant communities.”

“Our interest is in ensuring a fair and just and equitable system that allows for a documented and legal workforce for agriculture,” said Wolfe. “This bill does part of that.” And, he explained, “If you want sustainable agriculture that means sustainable rural communities, including immigrant, refugee communities. Immigrant and minority farmers are the fastest growing portion of farmers.”

While he’s guardedly optimistic that broad and intense interest from U.S. growers in immigration reform could move the issue forward, Wolfe is also concerned about anti-immigrant voices the Trump administration has “emboldened” who may fight “any efforts to reform immigration.”

Dozens of labor, immigrant, and farmworker advocacy groups are supporting the bill, including United Farm Workers, Farm Worker Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Farm Worker Association of Florida, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), the AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs.

Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) plans to introduce a House version of the bill. Meanwhile, in the past week, the Senate bill has gained additional co-sponsors: Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Tom Udall (New Mexico), and Al Franken (Minnesota).

At the same time, the fear recent ICE policies has created continues to take its toll on agricultural workers, their families, and their wider communities. “Our agricultural industry and our agricultural labor should be on legal footing,” said Gutiérrez.

Arturo Rodriquez, United Farm Workers president, took it further, saying: “It is long past time that the law should allow these professional farm workers to enjoy the fruits of their work.”

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Western Growers has expressed support for the blue-card concept, but they have not yet taken a position on the Feinstein legislation.

View Comments

  1. Don Honda
    Monday, May 22nd, 2017
    The U.S. currently has eleven non immigrant guest worker visa programs.
    http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/employment/temporary.html

    There is no cap on the number of workers allowed into the U.S. under the H-2A temporary agricultural guest worker visa program.

    http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/263529-funding-deal-hits-backlash-over-increase-in-worker-visas
    "The provision could more than triple the number of H-2B visas for foreign workers seeking jobs at hotels, theme parks, ski resorts, golf courses, landscaping businesses, restaurants and bars. The move is intended to boost the supply of non-agricultural seasonal workers."

    http://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Resources/Resources%20for%20Congress/Congressional%20Reports/2011%20National%20Immigration%20%26%20Consular%20Conference%20Presentations/H-2A_and_H-2B_Visas.pdf

    Alabama had to bite the bullet and hire LEGAL Immigrants for its AG Industry:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-09-24/africans-relocate-to-alabama-to-fill-jobs-after-immigration-law
    Africans Relocate to Alabama to Fill Jobs After Immigration Law

    "East Coast began calling Atlanta refugee agencies several months ago looking for legal immigrants to come to Alabama for a year, said Mbanfu, refugee employment director for Lutheran Services in Atlanta. He said the company would have taken as many refugees as he could refer. The agency connected East Coast with refugees who had been in the country three to five years, he said."

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2009-09-13-plants_N.htm
    Immigration raids yield jobs for legal workers

    'When federal agents descended on six meatpacking plants owned by Swift & Co. in December 2006, they rounded up nearly 1,300 suspected illegal immigrants that made up about 10% of the labor force at the plants.

    But the raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents did not cripple the company or the plants. In fact, they were back up and running at full staff within months by replacing those removed with a significant number of native-born Americans, according to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).

    "Whenever there's an immigration raid, you find white, black and legal immigrant labor lining up to do those jobs that Americans will supposedly not do," said Swain, who teaches law and political science."

    http://bangordailynews.com/2017/04/28/business/amid-foreign-worker-shortage-bar-harbor-businesses-turn-to-local-labor/
    Amid foreign worker shortage, Bar Harbor businesses turn to local labor
  2. Don Honda
    Monday, May 22nd, 2017
    "No, Our Immigration System Is Not Broken"

    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/no-our-immigration-system-is-not-broken/article/2552534
  3. Don Honda
    Monday, May 22nd, 2017
    It's interesting that Illegal Aliens are encouraged to use Chavez as a hero for their rights and his motto, "Si Se Puede" because he was adamantly opposed to Illegal Immigration as they hurt his efforts to help Legal Farm Workers for better working conditions and better wages.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQ9jIXHhFJI

    http://www.latintimes.com/cesar-chavez-legacy-wet-lines-illegals-campaign-dark-side-latino-icons-opposition-162528

    https://www.amren.com/features/2014/06/cesar-chavez-the-saint-unmasked/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cesar_Chavez


    Revisionist History of Chavez

    "The UFW during Chavez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration. Chavez and Dolores Huerta, cofounder and president of the UFW, fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Since the Bracero Program ensured a constant supply of cheap immigrant labor for growers, immigrants could not protest any infringement of their rights, lest they be fired and replaced. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964. In 1973, the UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose proposed employer sanctions that would have prohibited hiring undocumented immigrants. Later during the 1980s, while Chavez was still working alongside Huerta, he was key in getting the amnesty provisions into the 1986 federal immigration act.

    On a few occasions, concerns that undocumented migrant labor would undermine UFW strike campaigns led to a number of controversial events, which the UFW describes as anti-strikebreaking events, but which have also been interpreted as being anti-immigrant. In 1969, Chavez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of undocumented immigrants as strikebreakers. Joining him on the march were Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. In its early years, the UFW and Chavez went so far as to report undocumented immigrants who served as strikebreaking replacement workers (as well as those who refused to unionize) to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a "wet line" along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and potentially undermining the UFW's unionization efforts. During one such event, in which Chavez was not involved, some UFW members, under the guidance of Chavez's cousin Manuel, physically attacked the strikebreakers after peaceful attempts to persuade them not to cross the border failed."

    In 1974, the union inaugurated its “Illegals Campaign,” in which it urged members to report undocumented workers to federal authorities for deportation.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=uDcsAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA86&lpg=PA86&dq=%22campaign+against+Illegals%22+UFW+Chavez&source=bl&ots=ubarGu_FLn&sig=FEAVzVWokGPOYMYdYI_OugxFQB8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjSs6mNwIzMAhULNj4KHQjPDpgQ6AEITjAI#v=onepage&q=%22campaign%20against%20Illegals%22%20UFW%20Chavez&f=false
  4. Donna Lanen
    Wednesday, May 24th, 2017
    I am optimistic that the Trump administration will see the necessity of moving forward with a bill that will include a path to citizenship for our professional farm workers.
    I haven't heard or read that U.S. Citizens have been lining up to take these hundreds of jobs in many states, so there shouldn't be any push back from the Trump base.
    May level heads in congress prevail.
  5. Ed Anderson
    Thursday, May 25th, 2017
    What happened to the GREEN CARD program? Employers should be held accountable if workers do not have the proper ID. We have become so lax in enforcement of our immigration laws, people feel they have free rein to our country. Many of the migrant workers have been in our country for years and have never applied for citizenship because of the lack of enforcement. Politicians have been to liberal in enforcing a basic tradition. I am against Sanctuary Status for any city, county or state mandate. If approved, I support the loss of federal funding. Enforce our Immigration Laws.
  6. Deborah webb
    Sunday, June 18th, 2017
    I think this would be a great deal for our farm workers. They work long hours in the heat here in California just to get by, and some don't receive any help when it rains or the work stops.