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Biden proposes legal status, path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers

Congress has struggled for years over immigration reform, whether as comprehensive legislation or one-piece-at-a-time bills.

The estimated 1.25 million undocumented farmworkers in the United States would immediately gain legal status under the immigration reform bill unveiled by President Joe Biden on Wednesday, his first day in office. If passed, the bill would make the farmworkers eligible for green cards and, after three years, open a pathway for becoming U.S. citizens.

Congress has struggled for years over immigration reform, whether as comprehensive legislation or one-piece-at-a-time bills, and Biden’s plan was quickly criticized by some Republican senators as unmerited amnesty. Democrats have slender majorities in the House and Senate, so there is little leeway for legislation without bipartisan backing.

The House passed a bipartisan farm labor bill on a strong 260-165 vote in December 2019, but it died in the Senate without a vote at the end of 2020. The House bill offered temporary legal status for undocumented immigrants who continued to work in agriculture as well as modernization of the H-2A visa for guestworkers, including permission for year-round agricultural employment.

“We are looking to work with Congress again in order to solve these longstanding problems for American agriculture,” said Chuck Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, which supported the 2019 bill.

At a time when the farm sector wants a legal and reliable workforce, half of farmworkers are believed to be undocumented. Ag employers say that the H-2A system needs to be streamlined so that it is easier to use and so that guestworkers, now limited to seasonal work, are available for year-round work, such as on dairies.

“Under the Biden bill, farmworkers with work histories would immediately get legal status, along with Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients,” said Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers union. “This bill is fundamentally different than what any other president has ever done in emancipating farmworkers so they can escape pervasive fear and behave like free women and men. … Now we must turn this vision into reality.”

To qualify for legal status, farmworkers would have to pass criminal background checks and show they had worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in four of the preceding five years, said the UFW.

A Biden fact sheet says immigrant farmworkers, so-called Dreamers, and TPS recipients “who meet specific requirements are eligible for green cards immediately under the legislation. After three years, all green card holders who pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics can apply to become citizens.”

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said on social media that the immigration bill was “mass amnesty” for foreigners when “we should focus on helping Americans.” Other Republican senators, such as Marco Rubio of Florida and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, also were critical. The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors low immigration, said that “popular support for legalizing millions of illegal immigrants … may not be that strong.” But two Democratic leaders on the House Judiciary Committee said the bill would “return America to its roots and restore its reputation as an inclusive and welcoming nation.”

Dave Puglia, chief executive of the Western Growers Association, which represents fruit and vegetable growers in California, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, said the Biden bill sent “a clear statement about his commitment to resolving one of the most pressing issues facing the agriculture industry,” reported the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

The U.S. food system would falter without the labor of immigrants, said the National Farmers Union. “Through the pandemic, these essential workers have continued to show up to feed their fellow Americans — despite the immense risk to their own lives,” said NFU president Rob Larew. “To repay them for their bravery and selflessness, the very least we can do is to offer them a clear path to citizenship.”

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