August 20, 2004

The Path to Legalizing Farm Workers

By Eduardo Stanley
Voice of the Valley

FRESNO, Calif.— About 300 people marched for three miles under the hot sun of the Central Valley on Sunday, August 1st. Their objective was to pressure U.S. Congressmen to approve two bills that would grant legal residency to thousands of farm workers in the country, the majority of them Mexican.

“We know these are hard, poorly paid jobs that Americans don’t want to do,” said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the Union of Farm Workers (UFW), one of the event’s leading organizers. The AgJobs bill, which has the bipartisan support of 63 senators and more than 110 representatives, would grant thousands of farm workers and their families temporary legal residency that would eventually become permanent. It would also streamline steps toward obtaining the H2-A visa as part of the guest worker program, and strengthen salary negotiations and workers’ rights.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 workers come to the United States every year under the H2-A visa program, making up three percent of the agricultural labor force’s 1.6 million farm workers. More than half of them do not have legal residency, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Despite strong bipartisan support, the AgJobs bill has been held up in Congress. Rumors that the White House was responsible for this were confirmed in an article on July 12 in The Wall Street Journal. According to the article, the White House, pandering to pressures from reactionary sectors of the Republican Party, prevented the bill from coming to a vote in the Senate.

“Immigrants like my parents work hard and pay taxes, but they don’t have driver’s licenses and they don’t have rights,” said Mariana Durazo, lead organizer of the service employees’ union (SEIU local 250). “Our economy needs these people, not just a new guest worker plan.”

For Leonel Flores, coordinator of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights in the Central Valley, the AgJobs bill is not ideal but it has a strong possibility of being approved. “With the support of both parties, the bill might pass, although I don’t think that would happen this year,” said Flores, referring to the pressures of an election year.

“I’m here in honor of my grandfather who was a day laborer,” said Anna Perez, 20, a resident of Fresno and one of many young people who participated in the march.

The other bill that has strong bipartisan support, known as the “Dream Act,” would allow high school graduates who have lived in the country for five years, and are between 12 and 21 years old, to seek legal residency when they apply for college. Though some states in the country, including California, have taken steps to allow undocumented immigrants to pay tuition as legal residents, changes in legal residency status ultimately depend on federal laws.

In 2003, California’s former governor Gray Davis approved a controversial law that would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented residents—a right that was repealed in 1994 with bipartisan support. But after the recall election, the newly elected governor Arnold Schwarzenegger annulled the law. Since then, community organizations have added the right to driver’s licenses to their list of demands for agricultural workers and the poorer social sector of American society, many of whom are unable to exercise their civil and human rights because they are not legal residents.

Translated by Elena Shore

Return to the Frontpage