U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein talked Tuesday about her renewed effort to move undocumented farm workers toward legal status.
The California Democrat is co-sponsoring a bill that she said is especially urgent with the deportation threats from President Donald Trump. It would allow these immigrants to stay in the United States permanently if they meet minimum hours for farm work over several years.
This would benefit farm owners dealing with labor shortages, Feinstein said on a conference call with reporters.
“They tell me they can’t find workers, that workers are scared that they are going to be picked up and deported,” she said.
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The bill, the Agricultural Worker Program Act, is co-sponsored by Democratic senators Kamala Harris of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. Its sole sponsor in the House is Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, has been involved in past efforts at immigration reform, sometimes breaking with his party on the issue.
“The congressman is reviewing the bill closely and reaching out to our local ag stakeholders, whose workers could be impacted by this bill,” spokeswoman Jessica McFaul said by email.
Most of the farm labor force is from Mexico, and most of the workers crossed the border without the required papers, bill supporters said.
Among them is Lourdes Cardenas, a vineyard worker in the Fresno area who spoke in Spanish on the conference call.
“Working in the fields is very difficult work, and oftentimes we’re discriminated against because we don’t have papers,” an English interpreter said. “... They’re living in fear and have the insecurity that their family is going to be broken apart.”
Cardenas is active with the United Farm Workers union, which supports the new bill. “Overwhelmingly, farm workers do the tough, brutal work of feeding all of us,” President Arturo Rodriguez said.
Farm worker numbers have declined with the success of crops harvested by machines, notably almonds, walnuts and wine grapes in the Central Valley. But the state still needs hand labor for peaches, cherries, strawberries, table grapes and other delicate crops, along with dairy farm workers.
Joe Del Bosque employs about 300 workers at his Los Banos farms, and said the vast majority of them are immigrants. He hasn’t read the entire bill, but Del Bosque said he is “definitely for some kind of immigration reform that would give our current employees possibly legal status.”
The majority of immigrant workers for Del Bosque live locally in the United States, he said, because it often costs too much money to travel back and forth across the border. The legislation could ease the minds of workers who think they may not be able to come back if they go back home during the off-peak season.
Del Bosque said while there wasn't a labor shortage this year, he is concerned there may be in the future due to a tightening of the border and improving economic conditions in Mexico. Also, there is a fear that more prospective immigrants may be afraid to come.
The bill would grant residency to people who work on farms for at least 150 days per year over three years, or 100 days per year over five years. They could later apply for citizenship.
Recent efforts at immigration reform also have involved increasing border security — an area that Trump stressed with his call for a wall along the Mexico border. The new bill leaves that issue aside.
The UFW has worked in recent years with the California Farm Bureau Federation on immigration reforms that did not pass. This group’s president, Modesto-area nut grower Paul Wenger, said by email that it is reviewing the new bill.
“It is by no means the complete solution, which must address future workflow through a temporary worker visa program and H-2A (visa) reform,” he said. “But after years of congressional inaction and continued employee shortages on California farms, this bill begins the process of advancing the immigration reform debate in the 115th Congress.”
Merced Sun-Star reporter Vikaas Shanker contributed to this report.
John Holland: 209-578-2385