Three Democratic lawmakers from California have just presented new immigration legislation that would create an opportunity for undocumented agricultural workers to apply for legal status. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congressman Jimmy Panetta, and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren introduced the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019 (H.R. 641) on January 17. The bill would allow immigrant farm workers who have worked at least 575 hours or 100 work days over a two-year period to apply for “blue card status.”
“Farmers throughout California struggle mightily to find workers, and we all know that backbreaking farm labor is performed largely by undocumented immigrants,” Feinstein said in a statement. “By protecting farmworkers from deportation, our bill would ensure that hardworking immigrants don’t live in fear and that California’s agriculture industry has the workforce it needs to succeed.”
The new immigration legislation is primarily based on a condition in a previous immigration bill that passed through the Senate in 2013. The new bill looks to provide a pathway to lawful permanent residence for agricultural workers who maintain blue card status for a period of three to five years, which will depend on the number of hours worked in agriculture. Immediate family members of agricultural workers would also be eligible to apply for the program.
The lawmakers referenced a study from the University of California Davis which estimated approximately 253,000 farm workers in California are undocumented, equaling nearly 60 percent of the workforce. A 2017 California Farm Bureau Federation survey found that labor was one of the most concerning industry issues, with more than half of farmers reporting they had a labor shortage.
The Senate bill is being co-sponsored by several high-profile Senators including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders. The House bill is also being co-sponsored by nearly 60 Democratic Representatives. Several agricultural groups have also issued varying levels of support for the legislation including Farmworker Justice and Western Growers.
“We recognize and applaud the efforts of Senator Feinstein and Representative Lofgren, as well as many other members of the House and Senate, to address the acute labor shortage that plagues production agriculture,” Western Growers’ President and CEO Tom Nassif said in a statement. “Farm labor is incredibly challenging work that most native-born Americans are not interested in pursuing so we have long relied upon a skilled workforce who are new migrants to our country as well as guest workers.”