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Undocumented farmworkers on the Central Coast hope bill headed to Senate will bring them ‘out of the shadows’


SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- Undocumented farmworkers could get legal status thanks to a new bill heading to the U.S Senate. The House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act this week.

The bipartisan legislation hopes to address labor shortage in the agriculture industry.

"It would be good to get this benefit," said Fausto Zamora, an undocumented farmworker who says he's been in Santa Maria for the last decade. "We pay taxes, we're a part of society. The only difference is we're in the shadows," he shared in Spanish.

The bill would not give undocumented farmworkers an automatic ticket to citizenship. Instead, it would allow ag workers to apply to five-year renewable visas. Qualifying immigrants would be able to apply to permanent residence (green card) down the line.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act dedicates an extra 40,000 green cards a year to these workers. It also allows H-2A farmworkers to apply for citizenship directly after working 10 years in the United States.

H2-A visa holders are legal immigrants recruited by American farmers to fill seasonal jobs.

Zamora says field work is tough and underpaid, but believes the opportunity of legal status could attract a much needed labor force to the U.S.

While 34 GOP members supported the proposal, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Republican Party worries about the message it sends.

“This complex bill does provide some needed reforms by providing labor for growers," Greg Gandrud said. "However, it also forgives and rewards social security fraud with a path to citizenship.”

House minority leader and Bakersfield congressman Kevin McCarthy echoed these concerns.

"We are a nation of laws, and those laws must be upheld – providing illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship without any penalty is a non-starter," he said in a statement. "Immigration issues are complicated, controversial, and never easy. Bottom line is that our agricultural community needs a solution, and H.R. 5038 will not become law.

"We must all continue working constructively towards a solution and realize that to be successful, compromises will have to be made as the legislative process continues.”

The American Farm Bureau opposes the bipartisan bill as well, saying it doesn't provide a long term solution.

At a roundtable with Congressman Salud Carbajal last week, a number of San Luis Obispo County farmers and ranchers said the proposal was not perfect, but it was a step in the right direction.

Supporters of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act include the California Farm Bureau, the United States Chamber of Commerce, Western Growers Association, among 300 other agricultural groups.

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Nathalie Vera


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