Flickr photo by Joost J. Bakker
Immigration reform that decriminalizes agricultural workers and allows them to earn legal status is a top priority in a strategic plan released by the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.
The proposal is part of the state's Agricultural Vision, a set of policy recommendations that also addresses regulatory administration, water security, land and resources, access to healthy food, invasive species and stewardship. Public comment on the recommendations will be accepted until Friday.
A group of 120 agriculture leaders and stakeholders – including farms, government agencies, and public health, environmental and agricultural advocacy groups – drafted and ranked the proposals last year. Final recommendations will be presented to the board in the fall.
Immigration reform won the broadest support, with 73 percent of participants supporting the measure without reservation. Twenty-three percent considered it a high short-term priority.
California produces half of the country's fruits, vegetables and nuts, and one-fourth of its dairy. An estimated 75 percent of the state's agricultural workers are born abroad, primarily in Mexico. About half of them are believed to be unauthorized immigrants, according to the proposal.
"Coordinated efforts at recruiting domestic labor have largely failed, despite high unemployment in many agricultural communities," the proposal says. "Agriculture needs reform of federal immigration and work force laws to ensure its stability, future viability and a secure and vibrant workforce."
The group said the current federal H-2A seasonal agricultural worker visa program is "cumbersome and ineffective," bringing in only a small fraction of farm workers. It recommends supporting the federal Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act and AgJOBS, a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that has bipartisan backing.
The bill calls for reforming the H-2A program and would allow many undocumented farm workers to continue working legally if they pay a fine, are current on their taxes, have clean criminal records and commit to working in agriculture for another five years.
Supporters say the bill is necessary because labor instability pushes farm production and jobs out of the country. At least 84,155 production acres and 22,285 jobs have moved to Mexico, Feinstein says.
The Agricultural Vision recommends recruiting workers from other sectors where there are transferrable skills. It also proposes establishing a network to connect workers with available jobs and increased access to public transportation in rural areas. The remote location of many agricultural jobs has made recruiting domestic labor difficult, the proposal says.
Among the Agricultural Vision's other immigration reform recommendations:
- Pass state legislation to enable farm workers to obtain California driver licenses while working in the state.
- Pass state legislation that eliminates the 30-day mandatory impoundment for unlicensed drivers.
- Limit state and local government inspections of agricultural workplaces to public safety and criminal activities. Leave immigration enforcement to the Department of Homeland Security.
- Adopt family-first priorities in the law that avoid breaking up families through deportation when children are involved.
- Help agricultural workers assimilate with education in English and agricultural skills.