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Valley growers, farmworkers rally in D.C., urge senators to pass farmworker immigration bill

Field workers in California are almost exclusively immigrants who work at back-breaking labor to support themselves and their families.
Tim Mossholder
A farmworker in California.

California growers and farmworkers hope they will have something to be thankful for this holiday season. Hundreds are now rallying in Washington to support the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented farmworkers.

Farmworker Mairi Elston has never been to the Capitol before. The Delano teenager is there with her parents to urge senators to pass the bill.

The Elstons harvest fruits and vegetables in the productive Central Valley, helping to feed the nation’s families. But Mairi’s undocumented parents haven’t been able to visit their own families in Mexico in decades.

“They’re scared knowing that if they go back home, they won’t be able to come back [to the U.S.],” she said.

The proposed legislation would create a new legal status, sometimes called a blue card, for undocumented residents who work in agriculture. Law-abiding blue-card holders could apply for citizenship after eight years of field work.

“We believe this session is our best chance but also our last chance to get some sort of legal status for farmworkers through Congress,” said United Farm Workers spokesman Antonio De Loera.

The bipartisan bill has support not only from the UFW but also the California Farm Bureau and several growers associations. A crackdown at the U.S. border has exacerbated a farm labor shortage.

It’s particularly acute in California, where some of the state’s most ardent Republicans — such as former Congressman Devin Nunes and Redding Rep. Doug LaMalfa — joined Democrats to support the legislation when it passed the House last year.

“It is time to provide stability for our farmworkers, certainty for our farms and affordability for our grocery shelves,” California Farm Bureau president Jamie Johansson said during a Wednesday rally outside the Capitol. "We must fix the farm workforce crisis this year to protect America's food security and to lower food prices."

Supporters believe the lame-duck session is the bill’s last chance for approval. With Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) poised to become Speaker of the House, immigration reform is unlikely to come to a vote in the new year – a concession to his party’s more conservative wing.

But De Loera is hopeful that farmworker stories coupled with pressure from the powerful farm lobby will get the legislation past the finish line.

“For me, it’s a really simple proposition: If your labor is what helps feed America, you deserve to stay in America,” he said.

And with the U.S. on track to import more food than it exports for the first time in history next year, supporters say the bill is critical to securing the nation’s food supply.

In the meantime, the Elstons will spend the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in Delano, another year away from their loved ones.

“If this passes, it will bring so much joy and relief to all the farmworkers who haven’t been able to go home,” Mairi Elston said. “They won’t live in fear anymore.”

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.