Letter asks for deferred departure for experienced illegal farmworkers
By DAN WHEAT
A coalition of agricultural, religious and business interests in California wants the Obama administration to grant emergency work authorization for experienced farmworkers in the country illegally if Congress doesn't pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Some 70 clergy of evangelical and other churches, agricultural organizations and the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Nov. 30. It states: "In the absence of congressional action, you should use administrative tools to provide for deferred departure (deportation) with emergency work authorization for experienced farm workers."
The letter calls it a "national security and food security imperative" that the nation has an adequate and properly identified farm labor force.
The group signing the letter, along with members of California law enforcement, are affiliated with the National Immigration Forum in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform next year. The Forum describes itself as a consensus of conservative and liberal interests.
More than 250 religious, law enforcement and business leaders from 26 states gathered Dec. 4 for a Forum strategy session and press conference in Washington, D.C.
The next day a companion West Coast press conference was held at the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno.
"Our goal is to develop comprehensive immigration reform and in that is agriculture, the Dream Act and part that addresses the motel industry," said Manuel Cunha, president of Nisei Farmers League.
It may happen in parts but should be done by 2014 and resolve the status of 11 million people illegally in the country, he said.
"Republicans saw the election results and some of them realize we have to get this done now," Cunha said. "Obama got elected by many Latino votes. But if the Democrats do an ambush it will be over for them."
California was short 35 to 40 percent of its normal 440,000 seasonal farmworkers this past season, he said. Illegal immigrants are scared to cross the U.S.-Mexican border because of heightened enforcement and drug cartel activities, he said. As a result, labor intensive sectors of U.S. agriculture are threatened, he said.
Cunha is national treasurer of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, which is working with the American Farm Bureau Federation and other groups for ag labor reform. It would provide limited ag-only work authorization for undocumented workers and a new agricultural visa program to allow greater flow of ag workers into the U.S. Cunha sees that as just part of comprehensive immigration reform.
The call for Napolitano to grant emergency work authorization to undocumented, experienced farmworkers is a last resort, Cunha said, but "is the humane thing to do" for workers and will be needed to protect the nation's food chain and supply of food to other nations.
The letter takes Napolitano to task for the department's Form I-9 audits that have "often brought good businesses" to the "verge of destruction" as they cannot find skilled and experienced workers when the audits result in 40 to 80 percent workforce terminations.
"Because of the broken immigration system, ag employers can have 100 percent compliance and yet have 50 to 70 percent of their workers be undocumented," the letter states.
Some former workers become vulnerable to criminal enterprises, human trafficking and drug trade, the letter states.
It asks Napolitano to use clear and transparent metrics to go after truly unscrupulous employers and to reprioritize enforcement away from "counterproductive audits" and toward federal and local collaborative efforts against crime.
Among the signatories of the letter are: Western Growers, American Pistachio Growers, Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers, Ventura County Agricultural Association, California Grape and Tree Fruit League, California Cotton Growers Association and Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno.
Others include Grower Shipper Association of Central California, California Strawberry Commission, California Floral Council, Raisin Bargaining Association and the Fresno County Farm Bureau.