Supporters of immigration reform are making another push to pass a congressional bill that would give undocumented farm workers a path to permanent residency and ultimately citizenship.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is the sponsor of the AgJobs bill in the Senate, and representatives Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys, Calif., and Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, Fla., are backing it in the House.
"We've been close to getting it passed for years, but we feel like this is really the year to do it," Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers of America, told The Californian's editorial board Monday.
The cause has united farm labor advocates and agricultural interests, groups that in the past have lobbied on opposite sides. But this is one issue the longtime rivals strongly agree on.
"To the credit of the UFW, they've gone to their traditional allies and said, 'We have a window, here, we can't waste it waiting for the perfect bill,'" said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau.
That window is a president and congressional leadership that want to reform an immigration policy that isn't working.
"UFW is working on their people, and we're working on the people we can bring to the table, generally Republicans," Little said. "That's not to say it will be easy, but we're trying to do everything we can to make folks understand that we've got to do something."
The proposal would allow illegal immigrants who have worked in agriculture for at least two years to get a new "blue card" that would give them temporary permanent resident status if they commit to continue working in agriculture for another three years.
During that time, their spouse and children would also be eligible to work in the United States, and they would be able to travel freely between the United States and their home country.
After their years of service in agriculture, they would be able to apply for a green card and permanent resident status, but only after paying a fine of $500, showing that they are current on their taxes and passing a criminal background check.
The United States hasn't created an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants to legalize their status since 1986.
Subsequent efforts to do so have been met with heavy resistance from those who say it rewards people who have entered the country illegally.
Moreover, with a massive federal deficit and an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent, the last thing the country needs is millions of low-skill, low-wage workers who would depend heavily on government services, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform.
"There's no evidence of any sort of labor shortage," Mehlman said. "If there were, farm worker wages would be through the roof, but there continues to be high unemployment among farm laborers."
Plus, he said, the last amnesty did nothing to help growers. "As soon as they got their green cards, they got out of agriculture and took jobs in other sectors of the economy because they pay better," Mehlman said.
Rodriguez said it's in everyone's best interest for a broken system to change, because for the first time, the United States is importing more food than it's exporting.
"That doesn't help growers, it doesn't help farm workers and it doesn't help consumers," he said. "It's very hard to control pesticides, how workers are treated and food safety when food is produced overseas."