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Friday, April 22, 2005 | Local growers and the farm workers union were abloom with optimism this week after a proposal to grant legal residency to migrant farm workers gained momentum with federal lawmakers.
The bill, nicknamed AgJobs, would provide immigrants with temporary agricultural work permits while putting them on the path to permanent U.S. residency. The proposal was supported by 53 senators Tuesday – a simple majority, but short of the votes needed to be attached to an emergency spending bill currently before the upper chamber.
“It’s amazing to see the support behind this bill,” said Luwanna Hallstrom, chief operating officer of Harry Singh & Sons, a tomato producer based in Oceanside. “What this week’s vote showed is that this bill can pass.”
Hallstrom, who was lobbying the halls of Congress this week on behalf of AgJobs, is among the many affiliated with San Diego County’s $1.35 billion agriculture industry that are in favor of reforming a system she said was cumbersome to growers and farm laborers alike.
For Hallstrom, seasonal growing is strained by an “unstable” labor supply caused when migrant workers who leave in the off-season ultimately have trouble getting back to the United States in time for work. More than 1,000 farm workers are employed at the Harry Singh & Sons during the peak season for tomato-growing in the summer and early fall.
“Eventually, we would not be able to continue farming until reform comes through,” she said. “We need a mechanism that can secure a legal workforce.”
Workers enrolled in AgJobs would be able to travel abroad legally. United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Goodman said providing that flexibility would fix a system where hundreds of migrant workers die every year trying to re-enter the country through desolate terrain to better avoid border officials.
“Many of the farm workers we talked to in California go back to Mexico or Central America after their seasonal work is done to see their family,” said Grossman. “One of the features of this bill is eliminating that danger for those workers.”
Because the two most prominent crops in the region, flowers and avocados, are year-round products, only about 15 percent of the farm labor in the county is seasonal, estimated Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. Nonetheless, it’s important to correctly identify who is working in the fields, both for the sake of national security and the farmers who are responsible for employing legal labor, he said.
Official estimates show that about three out of four migrant farm laborers work with fraudulent documents, Hallstrom said.
“Farmers are careful to check documents, but it’s a known fact that a lot of workers are working with fraudulent documents,” Larson said.
Employers face up to $3,000 in fines for every undocumented immigrant they knowingly hire and a maximum of six months in prison, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.
If passed, immigrants who performed at least 575 hours or 100 days of farm labor during any 12 consecutive months between July 2003 and December 2004 would be eligible to apply for temporary residency in the United States if AgJobs became law. If another 360 days of farm labor are performed over the next three to six years by qualified workers, the bill would grant them permanent legal residency. Agricultural workers under AgJobs would lose their legal status if convicted of a felony or three misdemeanor crimes.
“These workers have been paying our taxes and are already a part of our society,” said Janet Kister, owner of Sunlet Nursery in Fallbrook and president of the county farm bureau. “Now we can give them the opportunity to work toward a legal status while putting stringent requirements into place that currently aren’t there.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., voted Tuesday for the provision. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voted against it.
Rob Luton, associate director of the Imperial Beach-based Border Solution Task Force, opposes AgJobs, claiming it was written by farmers and unions with a “bottom line mentality” that ignored the concerns of taxpayers and homeland security.
“This bill is really more about legalizing people who have broken the law by entering the country illegally,” he said. “Now they’re saying, ‘let’s forgive these people.’ It’s sidestep amnesty.”
Luton said lax border security has contributed to the overcrowding of classrooms, public housing and health care facilities.
Larson disagreed, saying the bill’s allowance for seasonal workers to re-enter the United State legally would relieve taxpayers from footing the bill for services the immigrants use while out of work.
Kister said Tuesday’s vote showed promise that reform was near.
“Usually you can get support, but you need to count noses and we came very close this week,” she said.
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