By Amy Joyce
Just and humane immigration reform—that prioritizes family unification and that puts the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States already enriching our social fabric and contributing to our economy on a pathway to citizenship—is what we want, what we have been striving for, what we still pray for and call for. This reform, however, has been put on hold. There is no way of knowing when or if the majority of the immigrants in our midst—whom we call friends, for whom we open our doors, and with whom we strive to stand in solidarity—will be granted the opportunity to adjust their status and become legal U.S. residents and citizens.
Nonetheless, there are smaller groups of immigrants who stand the chance of becoming residents and eventually U.S. citizens, with the full benefits and protections that are attached to such citizenship. One such group is undocumented agricultural workers.
The Department of Labor estimates that they number about 800,000, or 50% of the approximately 1.6 million agricultural workers in the United States. Farmers themselves, however, estimate that their numbers are even greater and that they represent over 70% of all agricultural workers. (New York Times, “Who Will Work the Farms?” March 23, 2006).
These 800,000—or perhaps 120,000 people—stand a chance of getting on a pathway to citizenship because of proposed legislation known as the AgJOBS—Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security—Act of 2007.
The AgJOBS Act is a piece of legislation that has been in the works for year and enjoys broad support from Democrats and Republicans, agricultural employers, and the United Farm Workers organization. It was introduced in January 2007 in the Senate by Senators Craig, Feinstein, and Kennedy as S.340 and in the House by Representatives Berman and Cannon as HR. 371. Since January, it has undergone revision as a result of negotiations between several senators and the White House. The latest version of AgJOBS was attached to proposed Senate Bill 1348, the final comprehensive immigration reform bill to be considered this past summer. That bill, as we know, did not pass; its failure essentially closed discussion on comprehensive immigration reform for the time being (see “The Rise and Fall of Immigration Reform” in this issue).
Although discussion of comprehensive immigration reform has been halted, supporters of AgJOBS continue in their efforts to bring it to the legislative table so that it can be voted into law. Now their hope is to have it considered as a stand-alone proposal.
The AgJOBS legislation is complex, but it can be boiled down to some essential elements, of which there are two: one focused on undocumented agricultural workers and the other focused on the H-2 agricultural guest worker program.
AgJOBS would provide for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers in the United States who have been doing agricultural work here through an “earned adjustment” process. Such a process would entail them first becoming temporary residents and then legal permanent residents. Some of the details of the “earned adjustment” of these undocumented farm workers include:
- Applying for temporary nonimmigrant status under what is called a Z-A visa (The cap on Z-A visas would be set at 1.5 million workers); and
- Paying a $100 “fine.”
- Applying for and obtaining a green card; then,
- Fulfilling work requirements (At least 100 work days per year for each of five years, the period beginning the day the Act becomes law; or 150 work days per year for three years and 100 work days for one year during the four-year period beginning the day the Act becomes law; or 150 work days per year for three years during the three-year period beginning the day the Act becomes law);
- “Touching back” in their country of origin to file the application at a U.S. consulate; and, finally,
- Waiting for a period of eight years. (The government will not issue green cards to these agricultural workers until immigration system backlogs have been cleared.)
The AgJOBS Act would also make changes to the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, a program that yearly allows U.S. agricultural employers to import workers from outside countries for agricultural jobs that last not more than ten months. AgJOBS would modify this guest worker program in two main ways: one that applies to agricultural employers and another that applies to the guest workers themselves.
For employers who are petitioning for guest workers’ help, the Act would streamline the process, “reducing paperwork for employers and limiting the government’s oversight of the employer’s application” (from Farmworker Justice website, “Summary of the AgJOBS Act of 2007 in the Senate-White House Compromise, Proposed Senate Bill 1348, page 4). For the guest workers, the Act would continue certain protections, such as a guarantee of at least three-quarters of the work time promised by the employer and a copy of the work contract and check stubs.
Additionally, the Act would make certain significant changes to the current H-2A provisions. For example, housing—once required to be provided by the employer—now could be replaced with a monetary housing allowance. And H-2A workers would now be allowed to seek redress for grievances against their rights in federal courts, rather than just in local state courts. So H-2A workers “would be permitted to file a federal lawsuit to enforce their wages, housing benefits, transportation cost reimbursements, minimum-work guarantee, motor vehicle safety protections, and other terms in the written H-2A job offer” (Ibid, page 6).
If you have read the article in this newsletter on the H-2A guest worker system in the United States, you know that it is a system structured in such a way that guest workers laboring within it are prey to abuse and exploitation. I bring your thoughts back to that article because the new and modified provisions of the AgJOBS Act, while seemingly promising more benefits to the H-2A workers, in reality will end up being just words on paper. This discrepancy between theory and practice is in large part due to the problematic features of the guest worker system that remains in place. One principal problem with this system is the fact that H-2A workers may only work for the employer who petitioned for their visas. This reality is at the root of much of the abuse that
guest workers endure while in the United States laboring on our farms.
My heart lies with the guest workers whose economic needs are so great. I want these men and women to have options that will allow them to meet these needs. But our guest worker system takes from them far more than it gives. It would be a great shame on our country to continue using it to address our agricultural needs without serious reform.
With the following closing words, Bruce Goldstein, the Executive Director of Farmworker Justice*, echoes my hope for the future of agricultural workers in the United States. He suggests that one-day a guest worker program will be unnecessary and thus will be eliminated altogether.
“In conclusion, if the [AgJOBS] legislation is enacted, the earned legalization program should enable the large majority of the undocumented farmworkes presently contributing to the economy to begin the process of gaining legal status. There will be many challenges in helping such farmworkers overcome obstacles in gathering evidence of both their past employment experience and compliance with the prospective agricultural work requirement. Moreover, the mere fact of holding legal status does not guarantee that farmworkers’ wages and working conditions will improve; nor does legal status eliminate the discrimination that agricultural workers continue to face in federal and state labor laws. Government and employers should take steps to stabilize this workforce by making agricultural work more attractive and productive. With a large number of legal-immigrant farmworkers in the country, there should be no need for H-2A guest workers during the several years after the legalization program begins. The changes to the H-2A guest worker program necessitate great vigilance on the part of farmworker advocates and government agencies to prevent unscrupulous employers from taking advantage of vulnerable guest workers.
Like many compromises on controversial issues, this legislation contains some painful concessions, but the result is far better than the status quo and will help many farmworkers far into the future. It should be supported” (Ibid, pages 6-7.
Farmworker Justice is a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice. Using a multi-faceted approach, Farmworker Justice engages in litigation, administrative and legislative advocacy, training and technical assistance, coalition building, public education and support for union organizing. For more information on Farmworker Justice go to www.farmworkerjustice.org.
Originally from Chicago, Amy Joyce serves Annunciation House in a variety of capacities, including her role as volunteer coordinator. Amy is beginning her third year of service to Annunciation House.