“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?” That was the challenge President Barack Obama posed to America on Thursday evening as he issued his decree that effectively provided amnesty to millions.
While he called out “fruit pickers: in his speech extending legal status to millions of foreign nationals illegally present in the U.S., Obama did not specifically extend legal status to those agricultural workers. Some of those workers will be offered legal status, but due to their children’s status, not their farm work.
“The President’s action will allow at least 250,000 of America’s current professional farm workers who feed our nation to apply for temporary legal status and work permits. Farm workers who have lived in the United States for five years and have children who are US citizens or Legal Permanent Residents, pass a criminal background check, pay all of their taxes, and pay a fee will be able to work and live in the United States without fear of deportation,” said United Farm Worker President Arturo Rodriguez after watching Obama’s address to the nation. A UFW statement specifically estimated that 125,000 of those farm workers are located in California.
“While we appreciate the president’s interest in reforming our inadequate immigration system, we’re afraid his action may complicate efforts to achieve a comprehensive, long-term solution,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said in response to the President’s executive action.
Wenger went on to say, “We’ve also been clear that we support border security–and border security will be enhanced by a permanent reform of immigration law that allows farm employees to enter the U.S. legally, to move between employers as needed, to return to their home countries and then re-enter the U.S. legally when their work cycle resumes.” He also emphasized it is not clear how many really will come out of the shadows for a program that could evaporate with a shift in political action.
Some in the farm industry question whether those given legal status will remain in the farming industry. The San Francisco Chronicle reports, “Past efforts to create a farmworker visa have included provisions that aim to keep recipients in agriculture for at least a few years.”
The Chronicle reported on comments from Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif, indicating skepticism over whether, after receiving legal status and work permits, “those people will be required to stay in agriculture, or will they now have work permits to go work in any industry they wish?” His comments also questioned the union estimates of those farm workers illegally present in the U.S. that would receive legal status through Obama’s decree.
Nassif issued a statement in anticipation of Obama’s decree, declaring, “An effective border security bill should be passed immediately” and should acknowledge securing the border as “an ongoing and continuous commitment.” Nassif listed this among his requirements to achieve “meaningful reform legislation.”
“Agriculture’s needs must be a top priority to ensure our existing workforce is given an incentive to continue working in agriculture until a new and better visa program is in place,” Nassif said before advocating for a “path to legal status that acknowledges their past service and ongoing importance to this industry.”
“We will oppose any piecemeal legislative package that fails to put the agriculture industry at the front of the line,” Nassif declared in his opinion on requirements for “meaningful immigration reform,” saying, “Our industry is in jeopardy.”
Western Growers stated it would be analyzing Obama’s executive order in the days after its announcement, and would release an evaluation of the “impact this executive action will have on the fresh produce industry.”