Tens of thousands of undocumented farmworkers in California were left in the lurch when legislators in Washington wrapped up their session for the year without voting on final passage of a bill that would have established a pathway for these agricultural workers to receive legal status. It is estimated that about 50 percent of farmworkers nationwide are undocumented – and 75 percent in the Golden State.
The Affordable and Secure Food Act was approved by a wide margin earlier this year in the U.S. House of Representatives (called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the lower House), only to be deadlocked in the upper chamber to the consternation of Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado – its chief sponsor in the U.S. Senate. In a speech on the Senate floor, Bennett urged his colleagues to take up the measure, to no avail.
“Are we really going to accept, as a definitional matter for this country, that we want fields filled with indentured servants?” he said.
In addition to establishing a pathway to legal residency, the bill would have extended the H-2A visa program year-round. Proponents said that would help alleviate rampant labor shortages in the agricultural industry, which have led to crop losses and higher food prices.
The current H-2A program allows employers to hire seasonal workers without any promise whatsoever of residency or work after a certain number of weeks or months. The new bill would have changed it to not only make the farmworkers eligible for work longer than a particular season but would have offered legal residency after a certain number of hours on the job – something employers opposed, and that’s where the impasse happened.
Even after intense lobbying from a variety of groups and with the support of California Republican Rep. David Valadao, Bennett was still unable to secure sufficient GOP support for the measure.
Also left in the lurch were more than 183,000 DACA recipients in California after legislators failed to include a pathway to legalization for those under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as “DREAMers.” The Obama-era program allows beneficiaries to legally work or attend school – renewable every two years – but recipients are not eligible for citizenship. Proponents of a pathway to citizenship had been hoping that federal legislators codify a law for DREAMers in much the same way Congress did for same-sex marriages so that courts wouldn’t be able to touch it.
A recent appeals court ruling declared DACA unlawful while allowing it to continue as it wends through the courts, and proponents fear the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could annul it should it reach the high court.
California Democrat Rep. Lou Correa, an early “DREAMers” supporter, had co-signed onto a letter sent to Senate leaders urging passage.
“In the United States, there are currently 10.5 million undocumented immigrants that have deep roots in our communities, serve on the frontlines of the industries that help our nation thrive, attend U.S. colleges and universities, and form the backbone of the U.S. economy. Many of these immigrants are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients … With the recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals declaring DACA unlawful, it is highly probable that DACA will end soon. DACA recipients will lose their immigration status, work permits and be vulnerable to deportation. Even if DACA survives the courts, there are a growing number of undocumented young people who are ineligible for DACA under the outdated rules that require that a person must have lived continuously in the United States from June 15, 2007, or before.”
The current system also does not offer protections for those who age out of the program at 21- a proposal for that also went nowhere.
Legislation offered by Democratic Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona offered a path to citizenship in exchange for increased border security funds was nixed even by Democrats who did not want to tie border security with DREAMers citizenship.
Correa said he was disappointed the legislation was not included in final passage before this current session adjourns forever. A new congressional session in January with a GOP majority in the U.S. House is unlikely to take up any immigration bills of this ilk.
The massive $1.7 trillion – trillion with a T – bill of which the farmworkers and DREAMers legislation would have been a part of includes a funding boost for the U.S. Border Patrol, which is in line to hire several hundred new agents for what the agency says is an expected influx at the U.S.-Mexico border if Title 42 ends. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Title 42 should remain in place for the time being, but Biden officials are preparing for the order to eventually end.
Congress has appropriated nearly $2 billion to the Customs and Border Protection agency for the expected border uptick.
The Trump-era Title 42 immigration order allows the federal government to rapidly expel migrants without any hearing to determine if they are eligible for asylum. Since its implementation in 2020, some 2.4 million would-be immigrants have been expelled and thousands of migrants wait in Mexican border cities on asylum requests.
Ironically, the Trump administration contended Title 42 was necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus, while at the same time then-President Trump said COVID was a hoax and “fake news.”
Opponents of Title 42 have called it a blatant anti-immigration move as there has never been any evidence of coronavirus spreading through migrants entering from Mexico.
One piece of good news for Latino college students from the colossal bill – an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award to $7,395. This represents the largest increase since 2010. Close to seven million students nationwide – including 50 percent of all Latinos in higher education – will receive the grants to help pay for college.