It is no secret that immigration reform has been knocked back and forth recently by political officials hoping to appease constituents on both sides of the aisle. However, the fact is, legally nothing has really changed since the new White House administration moved in. Perhaps it feels more in the forefront due to enhanced enforcement of rules already on the books, none of which will be rehashed here.  My focus is on farmworkers: the reason we are able to walk into a grocery store and find fresh produce ready for our consumption – a privilege that many farmworkers are unable to enjoy themselves. Farmworkers are a key component of U.S. agriculture, yet are often casualties of a broken food system.

There are 2.5 million farmworkers in the United States, a great number of whom are presumed to be undocumented. Yet, they are often the only people willing to perform the backbreaking work of harvesting America’s fields. According to the California Farm Bureau, 70 percent of farm workers in the Central Valley are undocumented. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced a bill which sought to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers currently working in the United States.

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Mr. Luis Gutierrez with the UFW and House co-sponsors at a press conference for the Agricultural Worker Program Act. Photo: Official website of Luis Gutierrez, Illinois House Representative Gutierrez with UFW and House co-sponsors at a press conference for Agricultural Worker Program Act.

Their Agricultural Worker Program Act bill may not be perfect, but it is a step towards a solution – and not just for farmworkers. Immigration is an issue that affects all of us who eat. If matters continue to go unchecked, the U.S. will continue to see more and more of its crops being grown outside of its borders. America’s labor force is at a critical stage; growers are making adjustments and downsizing production and variety of produce for the dwindling workforce too afraid of deportation to risk showing their face.

There are those who believe that aggressive immigration enforcement will not affect America’s farms, but let us recall that immigrant farmworkers are doing jobs that most Americans do not care to do and have not done for decades. Yes, crops may continue to grow: but who will harvest them? Mechanization has been proposed as an answer, but not every crop is suited to such methodology. Farm labor is mostly associated with specialty crops that require hand labor, precision, skill and finesse: something machinery has yet not been programmed to master.

Under the Agricultural Worker Program Act, undocumented farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in each of the past two years will be eligible to earn “blue card” status: temporary residency and employment authorization. Farmworkers who maintain blue card status for the subsequent three or five years – dependent upon total hours worked in agriculture – would then be eligible to transition to a green card or legal permanent residency. Although though fines are associated with blue card status, benefits are extended to the immediate family members of farmworkers, which in theory would halt the current disruptive separations of families throughout the U.S.

As noted above, the “blue card” is not a perfect pathway to immigration as it does not address the future workforce of farm labor that will enter the country. There are shortcomings, and there is the inevitable potential for misuse of the current H-2A program as an answer to labor shortages. However, until both sides of the aisle are willing to come together and address the broken immigration system with a long-term resolution, the Agricultural Worker Program Act is a compromise. It would benefit both growers and farmworkers, but America still has many lessons to learn. This bill at least recognizes that farmworkers face personal sacrifice for the sake of the rest of us.

Proud, hardworking individuals deserve the opportunity to walk a clear path towards their goals, and to live and work without fear.