While 900 immigrants and their supporters were making their way through the United States towards Washington and New York, a bill was being filed in Congress that would legalize the immigration status of undocumented farm workers. The bill is the culmination of a long negotiations between the United Farm Workers (UFW) union and agricultural employers.

The bill, HR 3142, titled the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, “would create an earned adjustment program for undocumented farm workers who would be eligible to apply for temporary immigration status based on their past work experience, and who could adjust to permanent resident status upon satisfaction of the program’s prospective agricultural work requirement,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who cosponsored the bill with Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah).

An identical bill has been filed in the Senate by Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

The bill would permit undocumented farm workers who have worked in the U.S. prior to Aug. 31, 2003, to apply for temporary resident status. If they continue to work in agriculture they would qualify for permanent resident status by 2009. The law would also amend the H-2A agricultural guest worker programs, reducing “much of the ‘red tape’ … while preserving and enhancing key labor protections,” according to Berman.

The UFW agreed to the compromise even though the union has opposed “guest worker” programs in the past, saying there are enough unemployed farm workers in the U.S. to fill the need. Agricultural employers must “certify” that there is a lack of workers willing to work in agriculture before they can hire the foreign temporary workers. The new bill gives “guest workers” the right to take their employers to federal court for violations of wage and other laws.

The undocumented spouses and children of these farm workers would also be permitted to remain in the U.S., though they would not be able to work legally. Once the covered farm worker gains legal resident status, his or her family members will be eligible for the same.

UFW Vice President Lupe Martínez told the World, “We have been working for three years on this proposal.” He said he hoped there would be a law to cover all undocumented immigrant workers.

Martínez said that “the word has gotten out” among farm workers about the bill and many are excited about the bill. Martínez said it was the first time that he remembers that pro-farm worker has bipartisan support.

UFW organizers told this reporter that they are educating workers about the bill and making sure that they keep all paperwork from years past through the present for proof. Guadalupe Quintero, speaking to this reporter while on his lunch break from picking grapes, said, “If it becomes law it will help a lot of the people that work in the fields.”

National Council of La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre hailed the proposal, saying it “is important because it allows us to focus on the status of farm workers in America, 70 per cent of whom are Latinos.” He warned, however, that this is only one step and that “no one should confuse this bill with the more comprehensive reforms that are needed in the broader immigration system.”

An estimated 500,000 farm workers could stand to gain legal resident status if the bill becomes law.

Rogelio, an undocumented Mexican worker from one of the New England states participating in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride rally in New York, said he welcomed the law, but hoped it could be extended to all workers. His wife, María, echoed his feelings, adding, “We need legalization, especially for those with children in school … they need their papers so that they can progress.”

The author can be reached at j.a.cruz@comcast.net