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Farmworkers brace for more time in the shadows after latest effort fails in Congress

Farm laborers working with an H-2A visa harvest romaine lettuce on a machine with heavy plastic dividers that separate workers from each other on April 27, 2020, in Greenfield, Calif.
Brent Stirton
Getty Images
Farm laborers working with an H-2A visa harvest romaine lettuce on a machine with heavy plastic dividers that separate workers from each other on April 27, 2020, in Greenfield, Calif.

Undocumented farmworkers say they are bracing for two more years of "living in the shadows" after lawmakers failed to pass immigration and farm labor laws during the 117th Congress.

One such worker is Maria, an undocumented farmworker in Idaho who asked for her last name to be omitted because of her undocumented status. She has worked for 27 years in onion and potato operations.

"I will have to keep living in the shadows," Maria said. "With protections ... I would be able to do more things that I currently can't — like get a driver's license or a loan."

The farmers who depend on both undocumented workers and those with temporary visas to feed the country are also staring down years more without relief.

What was on the table

Immigration reform has been a notoriously challenging effort in Congress, and a last-ditch effort to attach farm-related immigration legislation to a year-end spending package met a familiar fate.

The Senate proposal — a version of which had passed the House — would have made key changes to the existing H-2A temporary visa program for agricultural workers. It would have provided visas to employers who currently can't use them, modified wage requirements and offered some protections for laborers. It also would have created a path to legal status for certain workers.

The measure is a small part of a broader immigration puzzle that is likely to remain unsolved in the next Congress, when Republicans control the U.S. House.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is poised to lead the chamber in January, has previously said he will not put any immigration-related measures to a vote.

Some GOP members have long criticized the bill as a measure that provides "mass amnesty." The legislation would grant legal status, but only to people who have worked in agriculture for several years.

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, were negotiating for nearly two years until the pair's negotiations dissolved within two weeks of the end of the session.

A Crapo staffer familiar with negotiations told NPR that the senators reached a mutual impasse. "They've both decided it's probably not going to work," the staffer said.

Bennet then went on to introduce his own version of the bill. Despite having some House-side GOP support, the Colorado Democrat was unable to whip the necessary Senate GOP buy-in during the final days.

No change for half of the nation's agriculture workforce

For farmworkers like Sandra Jaquez, the continued inaction means a life in limbo. Jaquez began working in the fruit and nut fields of Tulare County, Calif., at the age of 15. For 10 years she worked alongside her parents, who have worked in the fields for 17 years and continue to do so now.

Jaquez picked grapes, plums, and sometimes almonds, a job she described as very difficult due to the heavy baskets of fruit that needed to be filled to the top.

"Any job in the field is very hard. During the cold you feel like your fingers are going to fall off, you can hardly move," Jaquez recounted. "And when it's hot, you feel like you're going to pass out at moments."

Jaquez joined dozens other farmworkers from Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan and Georgia who lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill in recent months — many on behalf of their undocumented family members.

"At the beginning, I didn't have my DACA, I didn't have my legal status. I had to work in the fields to help my mom pay rent, bills, school stuff," Jaquez said, who now as a degree of legal protection her parents do not. "My parents, and many in my community, are in need of a change. This is a real profession, a real job. Farmworkers feed the country."

Meeting with dozens of members of Congress and their staff, and even Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, they had hoped to convince the levers of Washington to provide farmworkers with labor protections and a pathway to legalization.

Nearly half of the agricultural workforce is undocumented,according to the Agriculture Department. Advocates like Jaquez say legal status labor protections and can emboldens workers to speak up in the case of workplace abuses without fear of deportation.

The United Farm Workers similarly argued that the measure would afford H-2A visa workers labor protectionsthey currently don't receive and provide a necessary pathway to legal status for farmworkers already living in the United States, often working for years on the same farms.

Still, other labor advocates have criticized the measure for making such a pathway contingent on years of farm labor.

The farm and food economy is on the table

Producers warn that without a solution, the cost of labor will go up while the availability goes down — overall putting at risk the delicate food supply chain.

Farmer advocates say that small and regional farmers are most at risk.

"They simply cannot sustain the cost and they have no other option. There is no domestic supply of labor to offset the gap in labor that they need," said Dave Puglia, president of Western Growers. "And that means H-2A is the only option — or, failing that, they'll have to scale back production and look for other opportunities."

Puglia added that this means small and medium-sized farmers begin consolidating into larger companies.

Robert Sakata may soon be facing such a choice for his Brighton, Colo., farm. He once had a 5,000 acre operation that hired up to 500 employees during the summer for vegetable harvest. Sakata now has a 2,500-acre farm that relies on 15 seasonal workers that instead work on wheat and corn crops. He was not able to sustain the number of workers needed for his large vegetable operation.

"I think there's going to be more operations like ours that choose to say, 'We financially can't do it,' " Sakata said.

Farmers with "year-round" operations, like dairy and pork producers, spent years lobbying Congress for access to H-2A visa workers, which is currently only available for temporary or seasonal operations.

"We have this continual shortage of workers, we have a predominantly foreign-born workforce and we don't have access to a visa program like other industry sectors do," said Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen's Association, which advocated for the legislation. "And so it puts us in a predicament in trying to procure workers."

About 90% of Idaho's dairy sector is made up of undocumented workers, Naerebout said, and he estimated that labor shortages run between 10 and 20% on farms.

The cost of wages is an additional concern for farmers that the failed legislation tried to address. The proposal would have temporarily frozen a minimum-wage requirement that industry leaders frequently decry as too high.

The American Immigration Business Coalition, which has been advocating in strong favor of the bill, argues farmers could save tens of thousands of dollars with just one year of frozen wages.

Together, high labor costs and worker shortages contribute to higher food prices, Naerebout argued.

"Our food security in this country is completely dependent on a workforce that is here without status. And we cannot survive without that," Nearabout said. "And that for whatever reason, does not seem to create the impetus you would think it might in solving this problem."

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Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.