Union, advocates, growers, reps agree on residence requirements for undocumented farmworkers

WASHINGTON—In yet another attempt to break the legislative logjam covering some of the nation’s undocumented people, the United Farmworkers, Farmworker Justice, growers and lawmakers have agreed on legislation to provide residence requirements  – including a path to “green cards” – for undocumented farm workers and their families.

And the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would not only create residence rules for the farmworkers, but would bring them under the protection of basic labor laws, including, Farmworker Justice said, laws letting them “improve their wages and working conditions.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would also ease the way for another set of farm workers, those with H-2A visas, to work and stay in the country, according to UFW and Farmworker Justice, a prominent advocacy group for workers nationwide. The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure Nov. 20. The full House is next.

The bill, by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a farmer and former state agriculture director, “provides a path to lawful permanent residency for undocumented farmworkers and their family members,” Farmworker Justice Executive Director Bruce Goldstein said. UFW said 53% of the nation’s 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented.

“It would eliminate the constant fear of deportation and family breakup that is so stressful for many farmworker families. Removing the threat of immigration enforcement also would reduce disruptions of farming businesses,” Farmworker Justice added.

“With legal status and a path to citizenship, farmworkers would be better able to improve their wages and working conditions and seek enforcement of their labor protections. These improvements would result in a more stable farm labor force and greater food safety and security to the benefit of employers, workers, and consumers.”

The measure still requires the undocumented farmworkers to jump through “rigorous and more expensive” requirements “than we would have preferred:” hoops on their way to legal status and green cards, Goldstein admitted. Those include proving they’ve worked on farms for a set number of years and signing papers promising to continue to do so.

But he called those requirements “acceptable” as a way to reach a compromise measure that can pass both houses of Congress.

UFW, Farmworker Justice and the growers reached a similar legislative accord several years ago. But it went nowhere in that GOP-run Congress. And despite Newhouse’s credibility, the reaction of other Republicans is unknown. That’s especially true in the GOP-run Senate. Its solons fear crossing GOP President Donald Trump’s hatred of migrants, the undocumented and people of color. Trump’s legions, who dominate GOP primaries, by and large share his views.

That led UFW Communications Director Jocelyn Sherman, in her posting about the legislation, to urge constituents to lobby their lawmakers to pass it, despite – though she did not say so – nativist and possible White House pressure.

“This bill is a milestone that will help bring stability to farm workers and their families and to the agricultural industry,” Sherman said (her emphasis).

“No longer will children worry whether their moms and dads are coming home from work. The bill addresses the pervasive fear faced every day by the immigrant farm workers who perform one of the toughest jobs in America.  The bill also includes significant new protections and rights for groups of farm workers previously excluded from basic rights.”

Sherman quoted farmworker Pablo Gregorio as saying many of his co-workers “have been here for decades working the fields” for “long hard hours doing jobs many Americans won’t do.”

And yet while the farmworkers’ kids are citizens, just like other U.S.-born children of undocumented people, their parents – again like the other undocumented – “are afraid to go to the store for a carton of milk due to the constant threat of deportation” by Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Gregorio told UFW.

With the compromises over visa programs and work requirements, Sherman stated the bill “has a real chance of passing” the Democratic -run House this year “and then we will have a fighting chance in the Senate.”

“Farmworkers can’t wait. Please reach out” to representatives to ask for their support, and then continue the lobbying, she added.

Goldstein says the Farm Workforce Modernization Act also revises the H2-A visa system for temporary “guest workers” to both help growers and workers.

That visa system says employers, before giving out such visas, must show U.S. native workers are unavailable for the jobs involved. But employers – and not just farm employers – have been abusing that requirement for years, by telling the Labor Department no workers are available when workers really are. But U.S.-native workers did not want to toil for subminimum wages and in dangerous working conditions.

“Farmworker advocates have pressed for reforms to reduce widespread abuses under this flawed program, while agricultural employers lobbied heavily to remove most of its modest labor protections, claiming the program is unduly expensive and bureaucratic. The bill’s lengthy provisions include important new protections for farmworkers, as well as changes to address agricultural employers’ concerns,” Goldstein said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.