Sacramento Bee: Sen. Alex Padilla pushes to grant 5 million undocumented workers ‘long overdue’ citizenship

By Matthew Miranda

Luz Ramirez longs for a day when she can visit her mother in Mexico. The two haven’t connected in-person for 23 years.

During that time, Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant, has worked in the Central Valley fields picking strawberries and cherries while also fearing deportation. But the years she’s spent in the fields may soon allow Ramirez to return to her homeland and see her mother once again.

She is among the estimated 5 million undocumented workers across the U.S. that would be eligible for a pathway to citizenship under a new proposal by U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif. The legislation targets individuals who worked in sectors —that include farm workers like Ramirez — deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We feel like sometimes we are drowning and we don’t have anyone to help us get out from where we are, but this would be a great change for us because we could see our loved ones while they are living,” said Ramirez, whose father died in Mexico in 2020.

For Padilla and advocates, this current bill is an effort to honor the sacrifices workers made during the pandemic and recognize their importance even when not in a public health emergency. Padilla, a son of Mexican immigrants, has committed himself to immigration reform since entering the Senate.

Nearly three out of four undocumented immigrants in the workforce were employed in essential sectors, according to Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute based in Washington D.C. In Padilla’s bill, essential sectors include agriculture, health care, construction, emergency response, sanitation, food, child care, transportation and hotels and hospitality.

“They were called essential and we can’t go back to a normal of just treating them as invisible and disposable again,” said Antonio De Loera-Brust, a spokesperson with United Farm Workers, a labor union for farmworkers.

But the bill is also yet another attempt at widespread immigration reform, a feat the federal government has tried to accomplish on a national level for decades. Last year, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed twice in the U.S. House but never came to a vote in the Senate. The bill’s passage seemed imminent, but did not receive enough Republican support.

Padilla called it “long overdue” to modernize the immigration system.

“We can’t forget the sacrifices these workers made, and still make every single day, for our country,” Padilla said. “Our essential workers have more than earned their place in this country.”

Padilla’s legislation would also include non-citizen workers who worked in essential industries but lost employment due to the pandemic or relatives of an essential worker who died from COVID-19.

Currently, there is no timeline for the potential pathway. Padilla would work with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for implementation if the bill passes. Applicants would need to pay the fee to apply and pass the typical background checks.

This will be the second time Padilla attempts to pass the immigration reform bill. His first piece of legislation as a senator also aimed to provide citizenship for essential workers. He has emerged as a stalwart voice on immigration since becoming California’s first Latino U.S. senator in 2021.


Padilla’s push for an immigrant-friendly policy comes at a time when some states are trying to push away undocumented residents.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation this month mandating that businesses with 25 or more employees to use the federal E-verify system to check the immigration status of new employees and mandates hospitals to ask patients about their legal status. It also allows authorities to charge someone with human trafficking if they “knowingly” or “willingly” transport an undocumented immigrant across state lines into Florida. Videos on social media show the new law is leading to worker shortages.

But in California, some lawmakers are continuing a decades-long campaign to build a social safety net for the state’s roughly 2.3 million undocumented immigrants.

State Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Merced, has recently introduced SB 831 which would authorize the California governor to work with the federal government to establish a pilot program allowing agricultural workers to start a process toward legal status.

Though the bill lacks specifics, the ultimate goal is to make undocumented farmworkers eligible for federal benefits.

Similar, less aggressive legislation has failed in the past. But Caballero’s bill marks yet another attempt to speed up immigration reform in the Golden State.

Ramirez is hopeful of the latest efforts by lawmakers, even if she often thinks her work in the fields is overlooked by most. She described sometimes feeling forgotten by lawmakers and overlooked people that benefit from the food she helps put on their tables. her work in the fields.

“We are the ones who keep working regardless and we would have a better job, better way of living, and many benefits that we do not have right now if they just think of us a little bit,” Ramirez said.

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