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Ventura County

Legal Status Sought for Workers

Legislation: Campaign aims to gain residency for undocumented immigrants. Backers hope it will ensure a supply of farm labor.


Ventura County labor leaders and community activists are waging a campaign aimed at gaining legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants said to be working in the United States.

From church courtyards to union halls, supporters of the Million Voices for Legalization campaign have been collecting specially designed postcards that urge President Bush and members of Congress to back efforts that would allow "hard-working, taxpaying immigrants" to become legal residents.

Nearly 3,000 cards have been collected in Ventura County since the May 15 campaign kickoff. Those efforts are part of a nationwide drive to collect and deliver 1 million postcards to the White House this fall.

"The contributions of immigrant workers to this country are essential and tremendous, but so many are forced to live in fear of being punished because of their immigration status," said Jessica Arciniega, a labor organizer with the Oxnard office of the United Farm Workers union.

The UFW, one of the campaign's sponsors, held a rally Sunday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Oxnard to drum up support and signatures for the legalization drive.

"They pay taxes and they work the hardest jobs," Arciniega said. "This is a campaign to recognize the contributions immigrants are making and to reward them for their hard work by granting them legal status."

The signature-gathering campaign is an attempt to revive a push for immigration reform derailed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Before the attacks, immigration--including the possibility of granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants--was at the top of a bilateral agenda being discussed by Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

The terrorist strikes put those efforts on hold, as the White House shifted focus from immigration reform to a review of immigration laws aimed at improving the government's ability to keep out or deport foreigners with suspected terrorist ties.

California agriculture plays a key role in the current push for legalization.

Growers across the state say they are increasingly encountering labor shortages, as legal immigrants leave the fields for more stable jobs and the farm labor force--500,000 workers at peak season--swells with illegal immigrants.

By some estimates, at least half and as many as 70% of the state's farm workers are undocumented.

Farm groups have lined up behind legislation, introduced last summer by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), that would overhaul the federal guest worker program established under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That program allows agricultural employers to temporarily recruit foreign workers if they are unable to find enough domestic help for their harvests.

The legislation, which aims to expand the program and makes it easier for growers to obtain guest workers, contains provisions that would lead to the legalization of laborers who agree to work in agriculture for a specified period of time.

"This thing would have been done last fall had it not been for the 9/11 incident," said farm industry attorney Rob Roy, who as a member of the board of directors of the National Council of Agricultural Employers has been involved for years with immigration reform efforts. He is president and general counsel for the Ventura County Agricultural Assn.

"The agricultural community feels it would not be appropriate to reward someone for violations of immigration laws," Roy said, "but that [illegal immigrants] should earn the right to legalization."

Labor advocates favor a less restrictive legalization program, and many are backing competing bills introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and California Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills).

Those bills would allow illegal immigrant workers to apply for legal status sooner than under the Craig proposal.

They also contain provisions that reform the existing guest worker program, making it easier for growers to use.

"We want to offer those workers who are here now without proper documentation the opportunity to earn legalization," UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said.

That is also the goal of the Million Voices for Legalization campaign but on a broader scale.

The campaign was launched in 30 U.S. cities by a coalition of labor unions, religious groups and community organizations.

The Ventura County drive has tapped everyone from soccer players to local attorneys to collect signatures at festivals and other community events.

For Port Hueneme resident Arcelia Hernandez, the signature-gathering drive has special significance.

A native of Mexico, Hernandez came to the United States illegally with her farm worker parents when she was about 8 years old.

It wasn't until the Immigration Reform and Control Act was approved in 1986--when Hernandez was in high school and her family was deeply rooted in the San Joaquin Valley--that the family was able to obtain legal status.

Now Hernandez, who went on to earn an undergraduate degree in psychology from Stanford University and a master's degree in public policy from Claremont Graduate University, heads a committee formed recently to support the signature-gathering drive and make sure other immigrants have similar opportunities.

"We're talking about workers who are contributing to our economy, who pay federal and local taxes but who don't get any say in where their money goes or derive any benefit from their hard work," said Hernandez, who this fall will join the faculty at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

"The truth of the matter is our economy depends on the labor provided by these immigrants," she said. "To have these families here without legal status just isn't right."

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