Fresno Bee: Sen. Padilla picks parsley with California farmworkers while pledging immigration reform￼
By Melissa Montalvo
U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla worked a day in the fields this month alongside California farmworkers while reiterating his commitment to immigration reform.
“Cuenten conmigo,” he told a group of about 70 farmworkers in Southern California’s Moorpark after spending the day harvesting and packing bunches of parsley and radishes.
“Count on me” for immigration reform, he said.
The event, co-hosted by the United Farm Workers Union, the UFW Foundation, and the Muranaka Farm, a UFW contract workplace, was part of the “Take Our Jobs” campaign – an initiative to raise awareness about immigration reform.
“They’re unsung heroes,” Padilla said of farmworkers. “They deserve a lot better from the government in terms of labor protections, in terms of a pathway to citizenship.”
Padilla, a Democrat from California who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Kamala Harris when she became the nation’s vice president, is the son of immigrants from Mexico. Padilla has been a vocal advocate for immigration reform since taking office in January 2021 and is running for re-election.
Padilla captured more than 50% of the vote during Tuesday’s special and primary election. The special election seats him to finish the current term; the primary set up the November general election for a full, six-year term that starts in January 2023.
Padilla said the experience of working in the fields on June 3 furthered his sense of urgency in pushing for immigration reform.
“People that do this hard work, whether in a hundred-degree temperature or under the rain, deserve better than to live in fear of deportation or change of status. They’re considered essential by the federal government – it’s time that we treat them as such.”
Padilla, whose first piece of legislation as a senator would provide a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, is also supportive of the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act – which would provide some undocumented workers with a legal status, while also expanding the guest agricultural visa program, also known as the H-2A program.
While some farmworker advocates such as the UFW are supportive of the legislation, others say it would perpetuate a program that puts farmworkers in a vulnerable position.
But farmworkers who spoke to The Bee said immigration reform couldn’t come soon enough.
“I haven’t seen my mom in over 18 years because we don’t have documents to come and go,” Francisco Cortez, a farmworker originally from Guerrero, Mexico, said in Spanish in a shaky voice as he harvested parsley a few feet away from Padilla. “The only thing I can do is talk on the phone with her.”
AN AGING UNDOCUMENTED WORKFORCE
Padilla was one of about 10 farmworkers who gathered on the side of a vast green parsley field in Moorpark on an overcast morning at 6:30 a.m. on June 3.
Padilla marched into the fields wearing gloves, a baseball cap, bright yellow waterproof overalls, and knee pads. Using a hooked-shape harvest knife, Padilla spent the first half of his day on his knees, chopping bright green parsley and assembling the herbs into bunches with twist ties.
One worker packing boxes of assembled parsley bunches alongside Padilla was Isidro Garcia, who has been working in the fields for over 10 years. Garcia was all smiles as he watched the senator.
“I think he’s going to realize how difficult life in the field is – and that’s a good thing,” said Garcia in Spanish to The Bee. “So he can show the other senators that farmworkers are important.”
“Almost all farmworkers need documents,” said Garcia, who expressed high hopes Padilla could help usher through immigration reform.
Garcia is one of the approximately 1.1 million undocumented people who participate in California’s workforce, according to a report by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.
The undocumented workforce has been in decline over the past decade and the number of people retiring is growing – developments that are causing “seismic” demographic changes in the state’s workforce, researchers at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center told The Bee in April.
While a majority of the farmworkers are foreign-born, agriculture labor researchers told The Bee in January that documented farmworkers now outnumber undocumented farmworkers.
WILL BIPARTISAN LEGISLATION CREATE A PATHWAY TO CITIZENSHIP?
One way that Padilla plans to support immigration reform is through the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, the proposed federal legislation that would allow undocumented farmworkers already working in the U.S. to earn their green cards if they work in agriculture between four to eight more years if they meet certain other criteria, according to a fact sheet on the bill from the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.
The legislation – which was negotiated between the UFW, UFW Foundation, the Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice and agricultural industry leaders – was initially proposed in 2019, but died in Congress a year later after failing to gain traction in the Senate. It was reintroduced in 2021 by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from San Jose, and Dan Newhouse, a Republican from central Washington, and passed the House in March 2021 with bipartisan support and is awaiting introduction in the Senate.
The FWMA would expand and streamline the H-2A agricultural guest worker visa program – and expand it to other industries.
An estimated 350,000 to 450,000 California farmworkers could potentially obtain legal status through the FWMA, according to Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Still, the exact number is difficult to pinpoint, Costa said, due to the challenges of securing exact data on the undocumented population.
“The H-2A temporary agricultural worker program is one of the few options ag employers have to deal with ongoing labor shortages,” said Nigel Bocanegra, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, a membership-based organization that represents the interests of farm labor contractors. “Negotiations on the FWMA are critical to ensure the longevity and accessibility of the program and to the continued success of ag operations in California.”
Usage of this visa program by California employers has been increasing in recent years, Bocanegra said, making the state the third-largest user of the H-2A program in the nation.
While many farmworker and industry advocates are hopeful the bill will pass the Senate, Costa said he’d be “shocked” if this comes to fruition.
“Despite all the employer priorities that are in the FWMA, I’m skeptical that under the current political climate and during an election year, that you could get 10 Republican senators to support it,” he said.
CRITICS SAY BILL FARM WORKFORCE MODERNIZATION ACT IS ‘COMPLETELY UNFAIR’
While groups such as the UFW, UFW Foundation, Farmworker Justice and others are supportive of the legislation, some farmworker and migrant advocacy groups oppose the legislation entirely.
The National Food Chain Workers Alliance is one such group. In an interview with The Bee, Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, an organizer with the Alliance, said that the legislation gives too many concessions to the agriculture industry without making any significant improvements to the H-2A program that would help workers.
Ortiz Valdez criticized the way the bill requires additional years of agricultural labor in exchange for the promise of a pathway to citizenship.
“Ag is literally back-breaking labor,” said Ortiz Valdez. “Asking for them to put in this many more years under the promise of immigration relief is completely unfair.”
In addition to the requirements that keep undocumented farmworkers tied to the industry, the bill won’t provide immediate reform, said Ortiz Valdez. “If this law passes, no one’s gonna get relief (or) immigration status the next day, or the next month, or the next year,” said Ortiz Valdez. “Immigration reform is going to take years.”
Ortiz Valdez said she’s also concerned about how the FWMA would require agricultural employers to use the “E-verify” web-based employee verification system used to confirm employment eligibility through the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.
Additionally, some opponents to the legislation point to concerns with the documented abuses in the H-2A program in recent years.
Last month, the U.S. The Department of Labor fined five California farm businesses for underpaying migrant farmworkers by more than $200,000. Investigators found that the farms failed to provide meals or kitchen facilities, safe transportation and pay inbound and outbound transportation and meal costs – all requirements of the H-2A visa program.
In November 2021, a federal court in Georgia found that a group of smugglers was fraudulently using the H-2A work visa program to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras into the United States under the pretext of serving as agricultural workers. The workers were subject to brutal working and living conditions, and at least two died due to workplace conditions.
Farmworker advocates have long been critical of the program. In 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center compared the H-2A program to slavery, while a 2021 report by the Oakland Institute, a progressive think tank, said the H-2A program represented a “race to the bottom” that hurts all farmworkers in the U.S.
“There are no signs of wanting to improve” the H-2A program, Ortiz Valdez said.
‘WE’LL SEE HOW HE’S ABLE TO HELP US’
Efren Garcia has worked for over 42 years in the radish fields of Moorpark with Muranaka Farms. As he worked quickly up and down the rows, swiftly securing a rubber band around bunches (the faster you work, the more money you earn under the farm’s piece rate contract), Garcia said he likes the work and was happy to see Padilla take an interest in their lives.
“It’s good, right? That they visit us and remember that we’re here,” said Garcia in Spanish. “Sometimes people forget about those of us that work in the fields.”
Garcia, who has seen many changes and promises of reform during his four decades of working in the fields, expressed hope that Padilla would bring back a positive message to his fellow senators about the hard work farmworkers do to feed the country. “We’ll see how he’s able to help us,” Garcia said.
Padilla is hopeful that another piece of legislation that will help farmworkers and other workers who were deemed “essential workers” during the pandemic is the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act – the first bill Padilla introduced with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, after he assumed office in 2021. The bill would create a pathway to citizenship for qualifying undocumented workers who were declared essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Undocumented individuals who lost a family member due to COVID-19 would also be eligible for citizenship. Immigrant workers were disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Immigrant and Latino workers in California’s highest-risk industries were at the highest risk of death during the first ten months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by UC Merced researchers.
The legislation was referred to the Judiciary Committee and there was a hearing on it last May.
Costa, of the EPI, said he thinks the outlook looks “bleak” due to Republican opposition.
“I don’t see a vehicle for it to move at all, since there aren’t 10 Republican senators who will support it and it doesn’t appear that doing it through reconciliation is even on the table,” he said.
Others say until the filibuster is eliminated, immigration reform will be difficult to secure. Padilla supports getting rid of the filibuster.
In the meantime, Padilla said he’s committed to finding a way to support the estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants who served as essential workers during the pandemic.
“They have earned a pathway to citizenship and I will keep fighting to make that a reality.”
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