As the U.S. Senate debated a plan Tuesday that would give legal status to half a million farmworkers who are in the country illegally, Nicolas Morales was toiling in an Oxnard celery field, much as he has since arriving four years ago.
Morales, 21, is among those who would be eligible for permanent residency under the immigration measure, an adjustment that he said would change his life.
The laborer said he has longed for a day when he could work legally and walk down the street without looking over his shoulder. And he has looked forward to a time when he would be able to bring his wife and small child from Mexico to live with him, free of the fear that shadows undocumented immigrants.
"I think it's a very good opportunity for all of us," Morales said. "This is just a game. The growers need us to do the work, but we need to hide that we don't have papers."
By the end of the day, the hopes of Morales and other farmworkers for the bill's passage were dashed -- at least temporarily -- as a Senate filibuster blocked the legislation from further consideration.
That did not dampen support, however, for the measure known as AgJobs, which California farmers say is crucial to ensuring that growers have a legalized workforce to prune and pick their crops.
From San Diego to Salinas, farmers and labor groups on Tuesday said there was overwhelming backing throughout the industry for the legislation, which would offer temporary residency to illegal farmworkers who worked in agriculture for at least 100 days over 18 months. Later, they and their spouses and children would become eligible for permanent residency, which then could lead to citizenship. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho).
Despite arguments that the measure would unleash a flood of illegal immigration, California growers said the legislation had become increasingly necessary as legal immigrants have left the fields for more stable jobs and the farm labor force statewide has swelled with illegal immigrants. By some estimates, at least half and possibly as much as 70% of the state's more than 300,000 farmworkers are undocumented.
"If we don't have a secure, reliable labor force, we are pretty much dead in the water," said Santa Paula citrus and avocado rancher Bob Pinkerton. "These are highly qualified people with skills, and we need them."
Sitting on a bench outside a dusty farm labor camp, 77-year-old Pablo Rivera said he no longer has those skills. After more than three decades in the fields, the Oxnard resident retired a few years ago, his legs too weak to stoop anymore. He said he has been following news about the legalization plan and worries that with a greater supply of legalized workers, growers might start paying laborers less. Still, he said he supports efforts to grant farmworkers permanent status.
"This is the reward for people who are contributing their hard work to this country," said Rivera, who became a citizen in 2001 after many years as a permanent resident. "This is a great thing that President Bush and Congress are going to do."
That sentiment was echoed at a strawberry field north of Oxnard, where workers stooped at the waist to pick rows of blood-red berries.
Lucia Orozco, 29, said she supported the plan, unbothered by the fact that field workers might be able to earn legal status in less time than she had. Her husband is a permanent resident, and she is applying for the same status.
"We are all struggling for the same thing," Orozco said. "I hope it passes."
The measure has many detractors. Barbara Coe, founder and chairwoman of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, said her group and others are vigorously fighting AgJobs.
Coe said the bill would lead to more illegal immigrants coming into California and that they would immediately apply for welfare and begin using free medical services.
"We're battling the monumental lie that these people take jobs that other people won't do," she said. "American citizens and legal residents were taking these jobs long before the tidal wave of illegal aliens started taking them."
Jose Guadalupe doesn't see it that way. In the four years since he slipped into the country illegally, the 24-year-old Oxnard harvester said he had found that few legal residents want to do the hard work required in the fields. In fact, he said most field workers don't have legal status, relying instead on fake documents to find their agricultural jobs.
"If you had papers, why would you work in the fields?" asked Guadalupe, lighting up a cigarette after a long day of harvesting celery. "The farmers need us, and we need to work."
Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the United Farm Workers union, said there were more undocumented farmworkers who would qualify for the earned legalization benefits of AgJobs in California than in any other state.
And he disputes assertions that the measure would spur illegal immigration, noting that it's an earned legalization for those already working the fields.