Immigration

Trump and Democrats are far apart on immigration. Can they work together for California farms?

Ag visas help bring Mexican farm laborers to pick Valley crops

Temporary agricultural workers from Mexico harvest oranges in the southern San Joaquin Valley in 2017.
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Temporary agricultural workers from Mexico harvest oranges in the southern San Joaquin Valley in 2017.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump told farmers he wants to make it easier for foreign labor “to come in and to work the farms.” Two California Democrats have a proposal they argue could do just that.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose are preparing to introduce legislation that would provide a one-time opportunity for experienced agricultural workers to apply for legal status, aides confirmed.

The bill, expected to be unveiled later this week, is largely modeled after a provision of the bipartisan immigration overhaul that passed the Senate in 2013. That legislation looked to create a “blue card” for immigrants who were employed in agricultural work for at least 575 hours or 100 workdays during over a two-year period.

Feinstein and Lofgren’s legislation will similarly require workers to demonstrate consistent employment over the last two years to be eligible. And like the 2013 Senate bill, it would make those workers eligible for a green card down the road, if they continue to work in agriculture for at least 100 days over the next five years.

Workers’ immediate family members would also be able to apply for a blue card.

“With this new legislation, farmworkers will be able to improve their wages and working conditions, resulting in a more stable farm labor force and greater food safety and security to the benefit of American employers, workers, and consumers,” Lofgren said in a statement provided to the Bee.

The proposal does not attempt to amend the existing H-2A visa system for temporary farm workers, which both agriculture employers and workers advocates complain is dysfunctional, albeit for different reasons.

“The current H-2A is cumbersome, convoluted and does not work for many producers,” Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the department’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum last year.

United Farm Workers, meanwhile, says the system enables worker exploitation, by tying their visa to a specific employer.

The labor issue is particularly acute in California. A 2017 California Farm Bureau Federation survey reported that more than half of growers experienced labor shortages that summer.

In his remarks at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention on Monday, Trump said he recognized how much the agriculture industry relies on foreign labor, even as he argued for tighter border security and immigration restrictions, overall.

“When we have proper security, people aren’t going to come, except for the people we want to come because we want to take people in to help our farmers,” Trump told convention-goers in New Orleans, La. “Very important. We’re going to make that actually easier for them ... Because you need these people.”

It was one of the biggest applause lines in his speech, according to news reports

“It was very well received by the farmers,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. “They’ve had a tough time across the country” over the past year, he noted, in particular due to the retaliatory tariffs on agriculture that China and other countries have levied in the midst of a contentious trade war.

Marsh was unsure what the president had in mind when it comes to improving the U.S. agriculture worker system, beyond regulatory updates to the H-2A visa rules already underway at the Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor.

The Labor Department unveiled a new rule in November that would allow agriculture employers to advertise jobs online, rather than in print newspapers, as previously required and another to streamline the forms that employers must submit.

Marsh expects more regulatory updates to be announced in the coming months. “Some of that may have been what the president was alluding to,” he said, “but there’s more we can do.” While the H-2A system addresses the new worker supply that agricultural employers need to bring in to the country, “you still have to take care of that existing workforce,” Marsh noted.

The current political climate, however, has tempered lawmakers’ hopes of trying to reach a comprehensive deal to improve the farm worker visa system, despite a bipartisan consensus that it needs fixing. Immigration has been a polarizing issue in recent years, and the president’s demands for border wall funding and the resulting government shutdown have further divided the parties and the country.

“During the Trump administration, farm worker communities across the country live and work in fear and uncertainty due to President Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant enforcement and deportation agenda,” Lofgren said. She added that “addressing this crisis and allowing existing farm workers and their families to earn legal immigration status and permanent residence will be a priority for me in the 116th Congress.”

Democratic aides hope that Feinstein and Lofgren’s bill can at least restart the conversation on this particular slice of immigration reform.

And Marsh, for one, is encouraged that both sides of the aisle are talking about the issue in 2019. “At least it’s been tee’d up,” said Marsh. “We’ll get an opportunity to see how it goes.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
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