Farmworker Immigration Reform: Preventing a “Bridge to Nowhere”

daveBy David Strauss, East Coast Migrant Head Start Board Member and former Executive Director of AFOP

Several years ago, the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee famously steered tens of millions of federal dollars to build a bridge in Alaska that would serve so few people it was dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere.” We fear that there are at least two potential such bridges in some of the proposals proffered over the past several weeks to reform our broken immigration system.

The U.S. Senate and President Obama recently stated principles on which they will base their support to provide a pathway for the approximately 11 million people in America who do not possess legal documentation to become citizens. Among this group, it has been estimated that at least 40 percent are people who came here on lawful visas, but stayed after the expiration of those documents.

The Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey consistently finds that at least 50 percent of America’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers are undocumented. The National Farmworker Alliance, a coalition of 23 national, regional, and state-based farmworker unions, service groups, and advocacy organizations, estimates there are 2.5 million farmworkers. That translates into at least 1.25 million farmworkers who are living in the shadows, awaiting action by the federal government.

Since the founding of our Republic, people who are born in this country are recognized as citizens. The farmworker population is comprised of many families in which one or both parents are undocumented, but their children are American citizens by virtue of being born here. These parents endure the terror of knowing that any day they could be arrested and placed in detention, leaving their citizen children “abandoned.” While not frequent in occurrence, it is a problem that occurs often enough that many farmworkers tell service providers they know of someone or are related to someone to whom this has happened. Moreover, a recent study by Applied Research Center revealed that more than 5,000 children in the United States are in foster care as a result of parental detainment or deportation.

It is an especially odious situation because farmworkers earn so little and have such limited familiarity with state-run child welfare systems. Due to those factors, they are unlikely to have legal documents instructing family or juvenile courts on their preferred custody plans for their children in the event of detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They are also unlikely to have attorneys they can contact in the event of such a situation.

A legalization program is of vital interest to the people who prepare and harvest America’s crops and, consequently, the stability of our country’s agricultural system. The Senate and White House statements on immigration reform are generating a great deal of optimism. While we and many others in the farmworker advocacy and service communities have every reason to feel optimistic about a reform bill passing in the next six months, there are some significant barriers to helping farmworkers’ aspirations to citizenship—barriers everyone who supports the farm labor community will need to help remove.

President Obama and the Senate spokesmen agree that it is critical to create a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people. This path will not only permit farmworkers to increase their stake in American society, but will prevent the creation of a huge subclass of people with no hope for full participation in their adopted home. But what form will that take? If, as the Senators suggest, applicants must “wait in line behind those that applied ahead of them,” then there will be a serious, perhaps insurmountable barrier to farmworkers and other aspiring citizens. As The Washington Post has pointed out, there is no single waiting line. Among the various categories of people awaiting Department of Homeland Security action, are people who applied in 1989.

Immigration quotas are set by Congress and are so inflexible that lengthy backlogs occur for applicants in many countries. Added to this problem are the bureaucratic delays and paperwork issues in the Department of Homeland Security. Absent a change in quotas and other reforms to the current processing system, it could mean that farmworkers who apply pursuant to the Senate principles would need to wait at least 24 years before their applications could result in permanent residency.

The President’s version of waiting in line is a bit more definite.  The “leaked” principles indicate the White House intends to have a maximum eight year wait for green card applicants. Although not ideal, it is a much more limited line than the potentially near-endless process that the Senate principles could mean.

And no matter what year their applications could be processed, could they be stopped by the lack of a certification that the border is secure?  The Senators said applicants would also be required to await a ruling (not clear by whom) that the border is secure before any petitions for permanent residency could be processed. Are they talking only about the U.S.-Mexico border (which has by most accounts, never been more secure) or does this include Canada’s 4,000 mile border?

Both of these conditions create the potential for endless waits, creating a bridge to nowhere for these aspiring citizen farmworkers.

Our hope is that a common sense approach to this and other sticky issues will prevail. For example, determining the amount of back taxes an immigrant owes will be very, very difficult.  Undocumented farmworkers typically do pay taxes and get almost no services in return, since most public services are based on proof of lawful status. Moreover, undocumented farmworkers whose bosses pay FICA taxes will likely never receive benefits they should have accrued. Ironically, while much of the public believes undocumented workers are not paying their share of taxes, in fact they have been propping up our Social Security system with billions of dollars they will never see again.

Farmworkers and their advocates must be vigilant as this new energy for immigration reform translates into legislative proposals. We must educate those crafting proposals about the need for recognizing that additional border security and waiting multiple decades for the right to a green card are barriers that create “a bridge to nowhere” situation for farmworkers and other aspiring citizens.

Our country is a nation of immigrants. A welcome to immigrants is enshrined on the Statue of Liberty. Creating a path to legal status for the 1.25 million farmworkers who wish to end their undocumented condition keeps faith with our national history and our values. And it is the right thing to do for the people who work so hard to put fresh food on our tables.

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