The New Democrat Coalition Task Force, which is co-chaired by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, held a Zoom press conference Thursday to endorse two new immigration reform bills reintroduced to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Dream and Promise Act of 2021 would: grant Dreamers conditional permanent resident status for 10 years if they meet certain requirements such as being 18 years old or younger when they entered; grant individuals who have had temporary protected status or deferred enforced departure for three years or more lawful permanent resident status; and set forth provisions that protect Dreamers and individuals with temporary protected status or deferred enforced departure during their application for relief.
“This landmark legislation provides vital protections for roughly 2.5 million immigrants, including Dreamers and TPS holders who have spent most of their lives in the U.S.,” Rep. Carbajal said at the virtual press conference on Thursday. “They are our neighbors, friends and colleagues who strengthen our communities and economy.”
The act also allows Dreamers to access federal financial aid and permits Dreamers deported from the U.S. by the Trump administration to apply for relief from abroad.
“As someone who immigrated to this country as a young boy, this is very personal to me,” Rep. Carbajal said. “Dreamers deserve to stay and deserve the same shot at achieving the American Dream that I had.”
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 would: provide a path to immigration status for agricultural workers and their families; revise the H-2A agricultural guestworker program to address employer and worker concerns; and impose mandatory employment verification, E-Verify, in agriculture.
E-Verify allows employers to electronically verify the employment eligibility of workers through DHS and the Social Security Administration. The act would institute mandatory E-Verify for agricultural employers, but not other sectors, after the legalization program for undocumented farmworkers has been implemented. Provisions in the act address some of the current flaws and aim to strengthen protections against discrimination.
“I have heard from countless growers about the devastating labor shortage that stems from our broken immigration system,” Rep. Carbajal said. “My father was a farmworker, and I spent many summers working with him in the fields, so I have a firsthand account of how important farmwork is to our nation.”
The act proposes an earned legalization program in which qualifying farmworkers could apply for “Certified Agricultural Worker” status, granting temporary residency during the 18-month application period. To qualify, workers must: prove employment in U.S. agriculture for at least 180 work days over the past two years; be an illegal alien in the U.S.; not be ineligible for certain criminal convictions; pass security and law enforcement background checks; and pay an application fee, among other requirements.
The worker’s spouse and children would be eligible as well with the same protections, including the right to work in the U.S. without restriction on what type of work.
“The bill makes meaningful reforms to the H-2A agricultural guest worker program and creates a first of its kind merit-based program specifically designed for the nation’s agriculture sector to provide its workers with the opportunity to earn legal status for continued employment in the industry,” Rep. Carbajal said. He added that he believes the two bills will “move swiftly” through Congress. He said he believes there will be bipartisan support for the farm act, but hopes for enough Republican support for the Dream and Promise Act.
The representative said that the growing labor crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic, and the farm act comes at an important time where farmworkers have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to congregate living situations and the essential nature of their work. The act would take steps to increase government funding for the farm labor housing development programs, and allow operating assistance for some properties.
“We need to make sure we’re providing a legalization path for farmworkers and their families, and at the same time, creating a sustained labor pool for agriculture,” Rep. Carbajal said, answering a question from the News-Press. “During COVID, these workers were deemed essential and they were responsible, like many other essential workers, in making sure our food in the fields got harvested and made its way to our grocery stores and wound up on our tables. It’s important to recognize the hard work and the role these essential farmworkers play in our society and our nation, and it’s only proper that we recognize that and provide for the many contributions they’ve made to the nation’s prosperity and economy once and for all.”
Teri Bontrager, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau, said the bureau, both at the local and state levels, was an early supporter of the farm act when it was originally introduced in 2019, and still remains in support.
“I think its reintroduction will stimulate ongoing discussions about immigration policy and its passage would improve the agriculture visa programs and just overall help accommodate our agricultural employees that are already here,” she told the News-Press. “And the H-2A farmworker housing — it’s critical that we have it.”
The executive director said that COVID-19 brought this conversation to the forefront.
“Even long before the pandemic, all of us in agriculture realized and recognized that the people who work on our farms and ranches — they’re essential, and if they’re not healthy, we don’t have a workforce, so we need to do everything we can to make sure that our workforce is stable and healthy and that we can do the best for them,” she said. “Our workers are just so essential, and so is every farmer and rancher all over California, all over the nation.
“Here in Santa Barbara County, I can speak that our guys are really, really concerned about doing the best for them that they can do, and we want the best for our workers, because they are what keeps us going. Our workers are our life blood.”