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Feinstein Bill Attempts to Shield Farmworkers from Deportation

Farmworker Florentino Reyes picks tomatoes Aug. 30, 2016, at a field near Mendota, Calif. (AP Photo/Scott Smith)

WASHINGTON – In the face of President Trump’s hardline promises on deportation, immigration advocates on Tuesday voiced support for new legislation that would provide undocumented farmworkers a path to legalization.

The Agricultural Worker Program Act, introduced last week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would extend legal residence to workers who have completed 100 days of agriculture work in each of the past two years. Those workers could apply for “blue card” status, allowing for three to five years of residence, depending on their workloads, and eventual green card status.

Feinstein said during a conference call Tuesday that Trump’s mass deportation rhetoric has driven much-needed farm workers into hiding in California. According to U.C. Davis statistics, as many as 560,000 people, or 70 percent of the farming workforce, are not documented.

“Wherever I go in California, they tell me they can’t find workers, that workers are scared,” Feinstein said. “That they are afraid they’re going to be picked up and deported.”

Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, in an interview Tuesday expressed skepticism that employers are having trouble filling rosters, arguing that the Trump administration is unlikely to target farmers. He said the new legislation also ignores the existing H-2A program, which allows employers to recruit foreign workers for temporary, seasonal work. He suggested proposing reforms to the existing program rather than passing new legislation.

“(Feinstein’s bill) is more to me about allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country, from the point of view of a large fraction of left and the Democratic Party, that anytime someone who is here illegally has to go home that ‘this is just a tragedy,’” Camarota said. “This is just a continuation of that kind of reasoning.”

The owner of Monterey Mushrooms, Shah Kazemi, who joined Feinstein during Tuesday’s call, said there have been real impacts from Trump’s immigration stance on his operation, the largest mushroom farm in the U.S., which includes locations in California, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Kazemi said mushroom workers have been showing up less in Pennsylvania because of recent ICE raids.

“We have had to cut back production because we cannot find people,” Kazemi said.

Feinstein and Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) were asked during the call why anyone should have any confidence that this bill will pass, given Congress’ inability to approve any immigration legislation in recent years. Gutiérrez said the bill is an opportunity to continue gathering momentum for the ultimate goal, which is comprehensive immigration reform.

“Farmers provide back-breaking labor that keeps our economy going and keeps our food production on American soil,” he said. “We benefit greatly from their work. Every day we eat and drink the products.”

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said that Trump’s deportation strategy has created a new set of circumstances that is motivating companies, workers and residents to mobilize on the issue.

“We are hopeful that the circumstances will lead to congressional action,” he said.

American Farm Bureau Federation Director of Environment and Energy Policy Paul Schlegel said in a statement Tuesday that the group is working with “both sides of the aisle in the effort to craft a viable, bipartisan solution.”

“It is critical that the problem be solved both in the short and long term,” he wrote. “Providing a path to legal status for current agricultural workers clearly is one aspect of the problem that must be solved, and we welcome constructive dialogue and proposals that seek to address this issue.”

If the purpose is to increase wages for farmworkers, Camarota suggested not letting so many workers into the country.

“If farmworkers were in short supply, wages should be rising rapidly as desperate employers try to hang on to the ones they have or recruit new ones,” he said.

Immigration is an issue that has historically split the right. The Republican business community has been in favor of guest worker programs, while some fiscal conservatives have fears over the social welfare impacts of increasing the number of unskilled workers in the U.S.

“There’s a conservative school that is very concerned about unskilled immigration,” Camarota said. “Welfare creates poverty, a lack of health insurance. For the right, those things are disconcerting – ‘we don’t want to increase poverty.’ … The business community could care less. … If all their workers did get free school or are on Medicaid, in public housing, business could care less. They get the workers they want and keep wages down.”

Co-sponsors for Feinstein’s bill include Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).