Work permits for farmworkers gain traction in California

AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka, File)In this 2013 file photo taken near Fresno, Calif., farmworkers pick paper trays of dried raisins off the ground and heap them onto a trailer in the final step of raisin harvest. The California legislature is considering a permit program for farmworkers who are in the state illegally.

In a move that signals their frustration with federal inaction on immigration reform, California state legislators have advanced a bill that would grant temporary work permits — not to foreign laborers, but to agricultural workers living in the U.S. illegally.

The bill, which was introduced by Central Coast Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, would protect seasonal farmworkers and their immediate families from the threat of deportation. Applicants would be at least 18, have a clean criminal record and be required to pay a small administrative fee.

“California has everything to gain, nothing to lose,” Alejo said. “We’re focusing on California agricultural workers because that’s where we see the greatest need. … We estimate 50 to 70 percent of agricultural workers are undocumented.”

The proposal does not formally create a visa program, but would instead form a group that would “negotiate” with the national Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice and then issue a report to the legislature. If favorable, the governor would presumably request authorization to grant work permits from the DHS and DOJ through a second bill.

The legislation, known as AB 20, passed the assembly June 4 and now awaits a fiscal impact statement from the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

University of California-Irvine Professor of Law Jennifer Chacón said the while it was unlikely the DHS would grant authorization for work visas to California, the language of the bill deliberately bypasses Congress.

“The language and structure of this bill show just how little faith legislators have left in the possibility of federal congressional action on immigration,” she said in an email. “Since Congress has basically abdicated its responsibility to undertake long overdue reform … the efforts of Rep. Alejo and other state officials to move this debate along … are commendable.”

AB 20 has already garnered the support of the California Citrus Mutual and the California Farm Bureau Federation, which have vigorously backed similar legislative efforts on both the state and national level.

Labor unions and other immigrant advocates killed a 2012 state bill, arguing that a “patchwork” of state-by-state laws would be insufficient compared with national reform. Partisanship in Congress doomed a subsequent federal attempt at passing legislation.

Bryan Little, employment policy director for the Farm Bureau, said that after 20 years of political bickering, Alejo’s bill would send a message to Congress that something has to be done.

“Either we’re going to import our workers, or we’re going to import our food,” he said. “(Agriculture) requires the work of human hands, that’s a fact of life. So we can grow it in another country, or we can grow it here and get the economic benefit.”

Immigration law experts say the legislation has at least the implied approval of labor and union interests this time around.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents about 4,500 unionized farm laborers, recently sent Alejo, the bill’s sponsor, a letter of support. Other groups, including the California Labor Federation and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which opposed earlier legislative efforts, have simply stayed quiet this time around.

Sameer Ashar, who co-directs the UC-Irvine Immigrant Rights Clinic, said he “highly doubted” the federal government would grant California authority for work permits.

“A reading of the Constitution makes it clear that immigration is a part of foreign policy … and the federal government has been fairly consistent in arguing for federal supremacy,” Ashar said. “But it seems to me that states should be able to experiment in ways that don’t compromise other constitutional values, like equality and dignity.”

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