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Nearly Half a Million California Farmworkers Could Gain Legal Status Under New Bill

Yoni Carrillo harvests mandarins in an orchard west of Fresno. He and thousands of other undocumented farmworkers could gain legal status under the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Alex Hall / KQED
Yoni Carrillo harvests mandarins in an orchard west of Fresno. He and thousands of other undocumented farmworkers could gain legal status under the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week — with 30 Republicans joining and all but one Democrat voting yes. It’s the latest attempt in a decades-long effort to stabilize the agricultural workforce.

On a recent afternoon in a citrus orchard west of Fresno, 34-year-old Yoni Carrillo used clippers to swiftly cut mandarins from a branch and drop them into a large canvas bag strapped to his waist. Other workers climbed ladders to reach higher fruit and made conversation between the treetops.

“The truth is, we all need (legal status). Because now with the pandemic, we can’t shelter at home,” Carrillo said. “Who does the work? We do.”

For every large plastic bin he can fill with mandarins, Carrillo will make $53. He and the other workers are out in the orchard, or in another field, nearly every day, he said.

“We don’t stop unless it rains,” Carrillo said. “If we shelter in place, the crop goes to waste. Who harvests it? The food, the vegetables ... who is going to put it on the table, if not us?”

Carrillo has worked on U.S. farms, without legal status, for five years, he said. Another man nearby said he has worked in the country for 18 years. When asked about a bill to grant legal status to undocumented farmworkers, Carrillo said the law should already exist.

“I don’t know why they are delaying,” he said. “It’s not just in California. In every state you see immigrant farmworkers.”

Under a bipartisan bill now headed to the Senate, more than a million undocumented farmworkers like Carrillo, almost half a million in California, could gain legal status in the U.S. — and, eventually, a path to citizenship.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week — with 30 Republicans joining and all but one Democrat voting yes. It’s the latest attempt in a decades-long effort to stabilize the agricultural workforce.

For every large plastic bin he can fill with mandarins, Carrillo will make $53, he said.
Alex Hall / KQED
For every large plastic bin he can fill with mandarins, Carrillo will make $53, he said.

Under the bill, farmworkers who have lived in the U.S. without authorization and worked in agriculture for years, could qualify for green cards. The legislation would also reform the visa program for agricultural guest workers and eventually require all agricultural employers to use E-Verify, an electronic system for checking authorization to work in the U.S., when hiring.

Compared to other immigration bills in Congress, the Farm Workforce Modernization bill has significant support from Republicans. By contrast, the American Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, passed in the House on the same day with support from just nine Republican representatives.

But the farm workforce bill still faces an uphill battle. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho are expected to introduce a companion bill in the Senate soon. But they’ll need support from at least nine other Republican senators to avoid a filibuster and move the legislation forward.

Hundreds of farm labor and agricultural businesses have backed the legislation. Many consider the bill to be an overdue compromise necessary for keeping the country’s farms running and eliminating the fear of deportation for workers and their employers. Backers include Farmworker Justice and the United Farm Workers union, in addition to numerous county and state farm bureaus, including that of California — the country’s leading producer of milk, fruits, nuts and vegetables.

“It really is the first agriculture immigration comprehensive reform bill to come out of the House in over 30 years,” said Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “So we’re excited that first and foremost it takes care of our existing workforce but also begins the work on a future flow program for those labor needs that agriculture’s going to need in the future.”

'We Have to Make Sure It’s Something That Functions for Our Farmers'

Democrats supporting the bill have highlighted the importance of farmworkers, even those who lack legal status, as essential workers in the past year.

During debate on the House floor last week, California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who introduced the bill, pointed out how throughout the pandemic Americans were still able to find food at the grocery store.

“And for that, we need to thank the farmers of this country, but we also need to thank the farmworkers of this country — a majority of whom are undocumented, a majority of whom have been here more than 10 years,” Lofgren said.

Some Republicans argued that the bill would only encourage more migrants to come to the U.S.

“Now we have a piece of legislation that says just come work on a farm and we’re gonna give you amnesty!” said Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia. “1.5 million people are going to become citizens for working minimal time on farms.”

In fact, only people already working in agriculture would qualify for legal status under the bill. To be eligible for citizenship, they’d need to remain in agriculture for a number of years.

“Making sure that people actually understand what’s a part of the bill is the most important part of getting support for it,” said Republican Congressman David Valadao, who represents California’s 21st District, not far from the citrus grove where Carrillo was working. Valadao is a key co-sponsor of the bill who’s working to bring other Republicans on board — specifically, senators from large agriculture-producing states.

“There’s a lot of states with Republican senators that have a lot of ag. I mean you’ve got Florida, you’ve got South Carolina, you’ve got North Carolina,” Valadao said.

California Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who introduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, delivers comments during debate over the bill on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
C-SPAN
California Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who introduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, delivers comments during debate over the bill on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Under the bill, farmworkers who have worked on U.S. farms for at least six months over the past two years could apply for “Certified Agricultural Worker” status, a 5.5-year work permit that could be extended.

Workers’ spouses and children could also obtain legal status, and workers could leave the country to travel home.

Farmworkers who have lived, unauthorized, in the U.S. for at least 10 years would be eligible for a green card if they continued working on farms for another four. Those with less than 10 years work history would need to put in eight more years in agriculture to get a green card.

The bill also seeks to streamline the H-2A guest worker visa, a program that’s long been criticized by growers as too expensive and burdensome. Under the proposal, employers would apply to hire guest workers through an online system, and a certain number of H-2A visas would be available for workers to fill year-round jobs, such as those in the dairy industry.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security would also pilot a program allowing H-2A workers to look for work on a different farm after finishing their first contract, rather than requiring them to leave the country.

Valadao said he hopes the Senate can adjust the bill to make the H-2A visa program even more business-friendly.

“Especially when you come to smaller farms, they don’t have the ability to hire the office personnel needed to get through the regulatory process of hiring H-2A folks,” Valadao said. “You also have some of the regulations when it comes to housing, transportation. We have to make sure it’s something that functions for our farmers.

"The whole H-2A component, they do modernize it a little bit in this bill. I don’t believe it goes far enough and I hope that in the Senate that there are some Republicans that will help make that more doable for our farming community,” Valadao said.

A mandarin orchard west of Fresno.
Alex Hall / KQED
A mandarin orchard west of Fresno.

'It Eliminates the Fear'

Despite support from farm labor and business groups, the bill has critics on both sides.

The American Farm Bureau Federation has raised concerns the bill won't allow enough guest workers for year-round jobs. Under the bill, a maximum of 20,000 H-2A visas for year-round employment would be granted to workers each year for the first three years. Half would be reserved for dairy farms.

“We cannot achieve a lasting solution without addressing both the seasonal and year-round needs of all agriculture,” said Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We already experience a labor shortage, and unfortunately, the FWMA cap on year-round visas would limit program access for growers with employment needs after the cap is met.”

Some employer advocates also fear the required wage rate for guest workers will be too high for farmers to remain competitive.

Meanwhile, some labor groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect workers.

Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, called the bill “problematic.”

“It forces existing workers to work a very long [eight] years (in a physically demanding industry) before citizenship is an option and it trades away rights for farmworkers who are here in exchange for the rights of future workers who will be imported through the H-2A program,” Carlisle-Cummins said. “Farmworkers who feed us all deserve much better immigration reform.”

For Pat Ricchiuti, a third-generation Central Valley farmer of olives, grapes and fruit and nut trees, the bill makes sense because it allows growers to legalize their existing workforce.

“The reality is there aren’t many people that will actually do the labor that’s required in agriculture,” Ricchiuti said.

Ricchiuti now uses E-verify, after he got caught employing undocumented workers, so he knows all of his workers are legally employed. But he says many other farmers in the Central Valley would benefit from the legalization bill.

“It eliminates the fear for them to not have a workforce,” he said. “They want to do the right thing ... for their workers. We depend on each other. We work side by side. I would not have them do something I wouldn’t do myself.”