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Union Rep: Lawmakers Who Oppose Legalizing Ag Workers Should ‘Pick Watermelons’

United Farm Workers supporters march during the annual Cesar Chavez/UFW march in Santa Rosa, Calif., on April 2, 2017. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

WASHINGTON – Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) called on Congress to pass the Agricultural Workers Program Act to allow foreign farm workers to stay in the United States and work toward legal status if they meet certain qualifications.

Giev Kashkooli, political and legislative director for the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), said offering guest workers legal status should be a no-brainer.

“For the people who literally feed us every day, the least we can do as Americans is invite these new Americans to be a part of our community – not just the people who feed us. Our nation has a terrible racist legacy when it comes to agriculture in the United States,” Kashkooli said during a press conference with Democratic members of the House today on Capitol Hill. “For the members of Congress who don’t want to sign the Agricultural Workers Program Act, we invite them to come out and pick watermelons.”

Gutierrez, the sponsor of the House version of the bill, explained why the lawmakers decided to hold the press conference about the bill outdoors on a hot, humid D.C. summer day.

“Being inside on a day like this is an option that we have that farm workers do not have. They do not have the option of shade, of air conditioning, of working in comfortable conditions,” Gutierrez said. “They are out in the heat every day from sun up to sun down and we only have to be here for about a half-hour – so relax, we’re going to get through it.”

Gutierrez lamented the U.S. immigration system for subjecting agriculture workers without legal status to deportation.

“We know that foreign hands will touch our food, and the question for America is whether we want those foreign hands to grow our food in this country or in a foreign country,” he said.

“We could choose to have a legal immigration and a functioning visa program so that our working men and women are protected by our labor laws and employers are in full compliance and accountable, but we have chosen as a nation just not to do that,” he added.

Gutierrez argued that congressional Republicans’ plan for guest farm workers is inadequate because it would make foreigners “beholden” to their American employers and subject them to deportation if they do not leave the country when their work is completed.

“They are looked at as being disposable. They won’t look at them tomorrow as families, as people, as potential Americans but as people who can be used and discarded,” he said, referencing a guest worker congressional hearing happening on Wednesday.

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the U.S. immigration system has to do a better job addressing agriculture “labor shortages.” He called the bill a good first step but said he wishes it went “further.”

“I tell my colleagues that 70 percent of the agriculture workforce in California is undocumented – think about that, 70 percent of the workforce in California in agriculture is undocumented,” he said. “In the recent last 18 months, I’ve never seen it and I’ve lived in the valley all my life, the fear that exists among these wonderful people of deportation. I’ve never seen it like this. They call my office.”

Another co-sponsor, Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), said the U.S. does not “appreciate” farmworkers.

“We don’t think about their security. We don’t think about their safety and it’s about high time we think about that,” he said. “But more importantly, the best sign of appreciation our country can do is to move this legislation forward here in Congress.”

Carbajal said the legislation is “modeled” after the 2013 compensative immigration bill that passed in the Senate.

“This doesn’t have to be partisan. This should be bipartisan and I’m hopeful that my colleagues in Congress agree that it’s high time we move this legislation forward to show our respect and appreciation of those who toil day in and day out to put food on our tables,” he said.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) are also among the 46 co-sponsors of the bill.