[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.