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Farmers, immigrant workers hopeful after Senate passes historic reform bill
immigration pic
Odilia Chavez uploaded the above picture of herself working in a Madera strawberry field to Facebook as part of the Photos from the Fields campaign calling for support to the comprehensive immigration reform. - photo by Photo Contributed

Immigration reform isn't just good news for those looking to obtain citizenship, but also very good news for California's agriculture industry,

On Thursday, the Democratic backed Senate passed a complete overhaul of the country's immigration law with a 68 to 32 vote, making citizenship for the 11 million illegal residents a real possibility.

The 1,200 page bill is the first time comprehensive immigration reform has been passed since 1986, and includes calling for $30 billion in increased border security spending along with proposing more streamlined methods for current illegal immigrants to ultimately achieve citizenship.

The bill serves as especially good news for the over 1 million farm workers currently working in California, according to Maria Machuca, spokesperson for the United Farm Workers, a California based labor union.

Machuca said the bill comes after years of efforts and collaboration by both the UFW and the state's agricultural employers.

“The comprehensive immigration reform proposal, which includes agricultural provisions negotiated by the United Farm Workers and major grower associations, fulfills the urgent need for an earned legalization program that enables undocumented farm workers, who are the backbone of the nation’s agricultural industry, to swiftly obtain legal immigration status,” said Machuca. 

The bill would add provisions for both prospective immigrants and currently residing undocumented workers to gain eventual citizenship through a “blue card” program. The program would require those looking to work on American farms to meet specific requirements in order to qualify to actually be employed at the farm without the risk of deportation.  Those work requirements include performing at least five years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year, or performing at least three years of agricultural employment for at least 150 work days per year.

Then, farm workers who fulfill those blue card work requirements, pay all their taxes, have not been convicted of any felony or violent misdemeanor, and pay a $400 fee would be eligible for a green card (U.S. permanent resident status).

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said the bill will help family farmers and ranchers address chronic problems in hiring an adequate and legal workforce.

“People who work on California farms make a big contribution to our state and its economy,” said Wenger. “It’s time we provide immigrant farm employees with a system that recognizes their contributions and permits them to work legally on our farms and ranches.”

The new bill also brings a slew of benefits that might entice those currently working in the shadows to come out and apply for citizenship.

Some of these benefits include three-year extended visas, multiple employment opportunities to work for more than one farmer, the ability to bring along family members and a housing stipend to assist with living expenses.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the Senate bill passed on Thursday would encourage workers to obtain legal status and contribute to the economy as well.

“For millions of farm workers who today live in the shadows, it will provide an appropriate opportunity to earn legal status by contributing to America's agricultural economy,” said Vilsack.

Currently, U.S. farms follow the H-2A guestworker program, which is designed to allow temporary visas for seasonal workers. Farmers, however, are fed up with the current system due to its lack of flexibility and inefficiency in actually hiring workers.

“This is a big improvement from our current system,” said Dave Kranz, spokesperson for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

If signed into law, the new program is expected to grant over 100,000 new visas to seasonal workers.

U.S. Representative Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) said he applauded the efforts of the Senate bill, and hopes that the House can provide its own bipartisan legislation that would appease both legislative bodies.

“I’m encouraged by the progress made in the Senate,” said Denham. “The House will now have a chance to pass our own bill, and I believe the strongest legislation will come out of a process where both chambers have the opportunity to go to conference.”