CAPITAL PRESS (Salem, Oregon)

May 9. 2017

 

Feinstein farmworker bill should be part of larger solution, ag groups say

 

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats are proposing giving legal status to many undocumented farmworkers. Farm groups generally praise the proposal but say it’s only part of the answer.

 

By Dan Wheat and Tim Hearden

 

Farm groups are giving generally high marks to a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would shield many undocumented farmworkers from deportation.

The United Farm Workers-supported Agricultural Worker Program Act would provide “blue cards” to those who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in each of the last two years. The cards would enable them to legally stay in the U.S.

If they maintained blue card status for the next three to five years, depending on total hours they worked, they would earn a green card and permanent legal residency.

Feinstein, D-Calif., said the bill aims to address a worsening labor shortage in agriculture.

“Workers are scared,” she told reporters in a conference call. “They’re afraid they’re going to get picked up and deported. Some have disappeared. … Some (growers) have talked about developing on leased land in Mexico, and that’s not the answer.”

Feinstein and her co-sponsors — Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California — hope their proposal can be part of a larger bipartisan immigration reform package, she said.

Such a package would please the American Farm Bureau Federation, spokesman Mace Thornton said.

“We continue to believe a comprehensive, bipartisan bill would be the best way to secure the kind of reform our farmers need,” Thornton said in an email.

Frank Gasparini Jr., executive vice president of the National Council for Agricultural Employers, told Capital Press he’s always happy when anyone in Congress tries to improve the labor situation but that Feinstein’s bill, like others, addresses only pieces of the problem. 

“We are not going into a lot of effort to push those bills because we need something to stabilize the current workforce and make it legal but also to improve H-2A (guestworker program) for longterm flow,” said Gasparini, a board member of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition. 

Year-round labor for dairies and herders, not just seasonal work, needs improvement, he said. 

The pathway to citizenship in Feinstein’s bill is a “tough sell” in the House, and House bills are tough to get through the Senate, he said. 

“We need a full fix solution by working together,” he said. “Whatever happens has to have some bipartisan support.” 

Agriculture groups have told the Capital Press they’re unaware of any stepped up immigration raids on farms, but there’s a fear among farmworkers and growers in light of President Donald Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigration.

Shah Kazami, owner of Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms, said the company has had to scale back production this year because of a lack of workers. The company has operations in California and five other states.

“If we don’t have a fix for our labor situation, I don’t think agriculture survives in this country,” he said on the conference call.