As many as 400,000 California undocumented farmworkers may get a fast track to legal status under a potential landmark accord between the agricultural industry and the United Farm Workers union.
The agreement, hashed out with key guidance from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D- Calif., stands to be a major component in sweeping immigration legislation introduced Wednesday in the Senate.
Backers hail the farm labor accord, which still faces an arduous path through Congress, as an elixir to a significant worker shortage in California's $44.3 billion agricultural industry and beyond.
The potential symbolism of the deal was underscored Wednesday as ag industry leaders and a longtime adversary – the UFW – praised the plan in a joint press conference in Washington, D.C.
The deal would allow undocumented people who worked steadily in agriculture in recent years to receive a "blue card" legal work permit while speeding up prospects of achieving permanent legal residency. It would also establish a new agricultural guest worker program with wage protections.
"This further symbolizes the historic moment we are engaged in here," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.
He said the pact could mean hundreds of thousands of undocumented farm laborers in California and beyond would "be able to immediately work without fear of being deported."
As many as 1.2 million farmworkers in the United States arrived as illegal immigrants. In California, undocumented workers account for the overwhelming majority of 450,000 seasonal farm laborers in the nation's most bountiful agricultural belt.
A UFW official estimated that as many as 300,000 California farmworkers may qualify for legal status under the plan to offer the "blue card" to people who can demonstrate they worked 150 days in agriculture between Jan. 1, 2011, and the end of 2012.
A leading growers association, the Nisei Farmers League, representing 1,100 California farms, poultry and dairy outlets and packing and processing firms, estimated the number of qualifying state laborers at 400,000.
League President Manuel Cunha Jr. said the legislation is needed because California agriculture could face a shortfall of 80,000 seasonal laborers this year because of a declining workforce as immigration enforcement and border violence scare away workers.
"If this gets signed into law, the workers will now be safe," he said Wednesday of a potential long-term solution. "Growers can wake up in the morning knowing that their workforce – which they have trained for years – is here."
The plan has been blasted by groups opposed to immigration expansion as providing an unfair break for agriculture and laborers who came here illegally.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a statement Tuesday criticized the overall immigration bill as offering "amnesty and providing business interests access to low-wage foreign labor."
Odilia Chavez, 40, of Madera hopes the plan means she can work without fear in California and travel to and from Mexico with less peril. She has harvested crops from strawberries to lettuce to garlic since 1999.
"That would be so much better. I hope to God it is true," said Chavez, who is raising two California-born children and whose Mexican-born oldest son, 19, is a now a student at Fresno Pacific University.
Chavez returned to Mexico in 2008 to visit an ill mother and paid $3,900 to a coyote, or smuggler, to sneak her back across the border. She says her husband was murdered in the border city of Juarez after voluntarily returning to apply for a visa at the U.S. Consulate there.
Under the ag worker proposal, she could legally work with a blue card and qualify within five to seven years for a green card bringing permanent residency.
As an incentive for people to do farm work, they would earn the accelerated path for working in agriculture for 150 days in three out of five years or for 100 days in four out of seven years. "I would happily do it," Chavez said.
Applicants would have to pass a criminal background check and pay a fine.
The agricultural industry would receive preferential treatment under the comprehensive immigration plan negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators. The vast majority of 11 million undocumented immigrants wouldn't be able to achieve permanent residency for a decade or citizenship for 13 years.
The entire plan requires proof of a secure southern border – with 90 percent of illegal crossers turned back – before undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. can apply for a permanent resident card, the first step to citizenship.
The agricultural worker plan, and the accord between the UFW and agricultural industries and growers, was finalized through multiple sessions over the past month in the offices of Feinstein and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
In a statement last week, Feinstein said the accord resolves "outstanding issues, including wage levels, agricultural worker visas and protections for U.S. workers."
Representatives for growers got a new guest worker program that can allow up to 112,000 annual visas for agricultural laborers. The UFW wanted – and got – concessions setting wage scales and providing housing and other workplace protections.
"Each side had to make compromises," said Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association.
The accord would require that guest workers harvesting crops earn $9.64 an hour by 2016, with a pay scale of $11.87 an hour for equipment operators and wages still to be determined for field supervisors and others. The UFW said equal protection measures in the guest worker program would effectively fortify wages for workers already here.
"This is going to create an incentive to work in agriculture," said UFW Vice President Giev Kashkooli.
South of Fresno, Selma farmer Carol Chandler hopes he is right. In recent years, she had to rely on laborers in their 50s – and some as old as 70 – to pick and pack grapes, peaches and nectarines as younger laborers stayed away because of immigration concerns or disinterest in farm work.
"This will really help the younger workers come out of the shadows and help us with strenuous work," she said. "Climbing ladders is really not for an older person."