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Measure offers `blue cards,' path to citizenship

U.S. crops depend on immigrant laborers, California's senators say.

January 11, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — California's Democratic senators introduced legislation Wednesday that would put some illegal immigrant farmworkers on a path to citizenship and revamp a little-used agricultural guest worker program.

Flanked by Republican colleagues, immigrant advocates and a California pear grower, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer presented the bill as matter of survival for labor-strapped farmers across the country.

"Today, many farmers are on a precipice," Feinstein said. "Whether they survive to plant another season is determined largely on one simple question: Will there be enough workers to bring in the harvest?"

About a million undocumented laborers work California's 76,500 farms, making up about 90% of the state's agricultural payroll. Tougher enforcement along the Mexican border and in the U.S. has left farmers scrambling for enough hands at harvest time, especially because undocumented workers tend to leave agricultural work for higher-paying jobs in the construction, restaurant and hospitality industries.

If the labor shortage continues, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that losses for California would start at $3 billion a year and could climb as high as $4.1 billion. California farms generate $34 billion in revenue a year now.

Toni Scully, a Lake County pear grower, said she lost large amounts of a nearly flawless crop last year. "It is extremely painful for a farmer to have to see a portion of his crop abandoned, or fruit culled out because it was harvested too late," Scully said. She estimated that about 25% of the county crop was lost in 2006 due to labor shortages.

Backers said the bill -- cosponsored by Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- has the votes to pass, but also said they would prefer to see it as part of a larger immigration package.

The legislation would allow illegal immigrants who have worked in agriculture for at least 150 days over the last two years to receive a "blue card," which would entitle them to temporary legal resident status. A maximum of 1.5 million blue cards would be distributed over five years, when the program would end.

Blue-card holders would be allowed to travel in and out of the U.S. To be eligible to apply for permanent legal resident status, they would have to continue doing farm work 150 days a year for an additional three years, or 100 days a year for an additional five years.

Applicants would have to pay $500 and show that they are up-to-date on their taxes, and must not have been convicted of any serious crime.

The bill would also revamp the H-2A guest worker program to make it easier and less expensive for growers to use and to protect them from lawsuits. The current program is a bureaucratic thicket. With more than 300 pages of regulations, it requires farmers to go through 60 different steps to get workers from abroad.

"Only 2% of American agriculture uses the program because it is so difficult to use," said Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, which has been lobbying for changes in the program for the last decade. "That's why we've gotten in the untenable situation of being dependent on people without documents."

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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