Fresno groups urge Alex Padilla to oppose CA agriculture law

Fresno farmworker and immigrant rights groups are calling on California Sen. Alex Padilla to vote “no” on a piece of federal legislation they say would hurt both domestic and guest agricultural workers.

On Monday morning, about 20 people gathered in front of the Robert E. Coyle Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Fresno to state their opposition to the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, or FWMA.

“We strongly believe that farmworkers deserve better than the anti-labor Farm Workforce Modernization Act,” according to a joint statement by two Fresno area organizations. “We don’t want laws that divide workers, we want living wages, better protections for farmworkers, and a comprehensive immigration reform for all workers.”

The proposed law would create a pathway to legal residency for some undocumented agricultural workers who meet certain criteria, and would also expand the guest agricultural work program, also known as H-2A, a step opponents say can hurt farmworkers already in the United States, as well as guest workers employed through the program.

They are instead calling for a comprehensive immigration reform for the estimated 11 million undocumented people already living in the United States.

“We need a comprehensive immigration reform for all workers and for all people that live in this country and are contributing to the greatness and the economy of this country,” Oralia Maceda Mendez, program director for the Binational Center for Indigenous Oaxacan Community Development (CBDIO), said in Spanish, during Monday’s news conference.

“We want to urge Senator Padilla to oppose this (Farm Workforce Modernization) Act,” said Myrna Martinez Nateras, program director for the American Friends Service Committee. “And more than anything, to listen to us.”

While the legislation has passed the House of Representatives, it has not yet been introduced into the Senate. According to a July report by Politico, the expansion of worker rights to cover H-2A workers is a “sticking point” in the Senate negotiations.

Myrna Martinez Nateras, center, program director for American Friends Service Committee, leads a group opposing the federal Farm Workforce Modernization Act outside the Federal Building in downtown Fresno on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

As the son of Mexican immigrants and California’s first Latino Senator, Padilla has been a vocal advocate for immigration reform since taking office in January 2021. He was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Kamala Harris when she became vice president. Padillia is seeking a new term in the upcoming November mid-term elections, where he will face Republican attorney Mark Meuser.

Padilla supports the FWMA legislation and has said it would lay the foundation for immigration reform.

“Farm workers labor every day under difficult and often dangerous conditions to put food on our tables and fuel our nation’s economy,” he said in an email statement to The Bee on Monday.

“They deserve to be treated with dignity and provided a pathway to documented status.”

A group opposing the federal Farm Workforce Modernization Act hold up signs and speak out against the act saying it doesn’t do enough outside the Federal Building in downtown Fresno on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

Why farmworker advocacy groups disagree on the legislation

Farmworker advocacy groups are split on whether or not they support the FWMA.

The act, co-authored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, and Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Washington, result from a bipartisan effort, farm labor unions and advocacy groups, and agricultural employers. An initial version of the legislation was proposed in 2019, but died a year later after failing to gain traction in the Senate.

The United Farm Workers union and Farmworker Justice, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, who support the legislation, say it would provide legal status to a large number of farmworkers.

Under the FWMA, undocumented farmworkers already working in the U.S. would be able to earn their green cards if they work in agriculture for four to eight years and meet other criteria, according to a fact sheet from Farmworker Justice.

An estimated 350,000 to 450,000 California farmworkers could potentially obtain legal status through the FWMA, Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told The Bee in June. Still, the exact number is difficult to pinpoint, Costa said, due to the challenges of securing exact data on the undocumented population.

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Opponents, however, say the FWMA requires too many additional years of agricultural work to qualify for legal status.

Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, an organizer with the National Food Chain Workers Alliance, told The Bee in June that asking farmworkers to put in more years of “backbreaking work” under the promise of immigration relief is “completely unfair,” especially for the older farmworkers who have worked for decades in the fields.

Those protesting on Monday – including representatives from the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice organization that calls for humane migration responses, CBDIO, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, and the California Institute for Rural Studies – said that expanding the H-2A program under the FWMA could result in domestic workers already in the U.S. being replaced with foreign workers. They said they fear employers could use the program to replace workers who exercise their rights to speak out against poor working conditions.

But agriculture industry groups say the program is necessary to meet labor shortages in agriculture.

The H-2A program has grown exponentially in recent years.

In fiscal year 2021, the Department of Labor certified over 317,000 seasonal farm jobs to be filled by H-2A workers, up 15% from 275,000 in fiscal year 2020, and more than three times the number of jobs certified in fiscal year 2013, according to an analysis by the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy think tank.

The program’s growth is especially high in California, the analysis found, which is among the top five state’s to use the program.

Protesters ask: what did Alex Padilla learn in the fields?

During Monday’s news conference, Martinez Nateras questioned Padilla’s decision to spend a day in the fields alongside farmworkers.

In June, Padilla accepted an invitation from the United Farm Workers as part of their “Take Our Jobs” campaign and worked alongside California farmworkers picking radishes and parsley in Moorpark.

He was the first U.S.Senator to accept the invitation.

“Did he (Padilla) learn that (many farmworkers)…have been here for over 20 years and they have not been able to regularize their status? Did he learn that these workers don’t have access to the essential services that they deserve?” Martinez Nateras asked.

She also said the coalition wants to meet with Padilla directly to discuss their concerns, but acknowledged they’ve met with his staff “many, many times,” but “haven’t been able to meet with him,” Martinez Nateras said.

Other protesters called for more scrutiny of the growing guest agricultural worker program and criticized Padilla for supporting its growth.

The H-2A program “needs to be examined from a historic angle,” Cristel Jensen, a community-driven strategist for the California Institute for Rural Studies, said during Monday’s news conference. Jensen warned the H-2A program contains elements of the Bracero program and could potentially repeat its mistakes.

The Bracero program was the executive order which allowed the U.S. to import millions of guest workers from Mexico to work in the harvest during war-era worker shortages. The controversial program, which ran from 1942 to 1964, had a number of documented abuses, while worker protections were often ignored, according to the Bracero History Archive.

Jensen said that Padilla should take care of the farmworkers that are already living in his state, rather than supporting legislation to expand the guest worker program.

Padilla said he is committed to immigration reform beyond the FMWA.

“The first bill I introduced in the Senate would provide a path to citizenship for these essential workers,” Padilla said in the email statement.

In the past, he had said he supports getting rid of the filibuster, which many see as a necessary step to immigration reform.

“Justice for farm workers is long overdue,” he said, “and I will keep fighting to fix our broken immigration system.”

This story was originally published August 31, 2022 8:09 AM.

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Melissa Montalvo covers labor and economy in California’s Central Valley for The Fresno Bee/Fresnoland as a Report for America Corps member. She is also a regular contributor to La Abeja, The Bee’s free weekly newsletter on Latino issues. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in international relations, minors in business law and French, and Renaissance scholar and Global scholar distinctions.

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