Things That Matter

The House Just Introduced A Bipartisan Plan To Help Undocumented Farmworkers But Will The White House Support It?

The United States’ agricultural business is largely ran on the back of undocumented foreign labor. In fact, more than 50% of those employed in agriculture are undocumented. That means there are more than a million people living in the shadows but who a vital part of delivering food to American households.

Not only do they live in the shadows for fear of deportation but many are even too afraid to access much needed healthcare or to speak out against employee abuse.

To help address these very real concerns, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been quietly working out the details of a bill that could help.

The bipartisan bill was announced on Wednesday and may actually have a chance at being passed.

Lawmakers have struck a deal that would give legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant farmworkers in exchange for stronger employee verification in the agricultural sector.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, who chairs the immigration subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, led negotiations on the deal with Republican Reps. Doug LaMalfa of Richvale (Butte County) and Dan Newhouse of Washington state.

“The men and women who work America’s farms feed the nation. But, farmworkers across the country are living and working with uncertainty and fear, contributing to the destabilization of farms across the nation,” Lofgren said in a statement. “Our bill offers stability for American farms.”

If it passes the House, the bill still faces an uncertain future in the Senate. It’s also unclear whether President Trump will back it.

However, the bill would face a more uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled Senate.

If 20 Republicans are willing to put their names on the effort, it could show the reach of interest from the GOP side of the aisle to address a very specific portion of the immigrant workforce that is crucial to many of their districts’ economies.

In addition to Diaz-Balart’s participation in negotiations, another Republican at the table has been Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, according to two congressional sources.

The bill could offer hope to more than a million people across the US.

Hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers already in California could be eligible to get on a path to citizenship if the bill becomes law, and employers would be able to take advantage of the reformed visa process to hire new foreign workers legally.

If the bill can pass the House, one supporter in the Senate will be California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. She said in a statement provided to The Chronicle that she will work to try to pass the legislation in the upper chamber.

“Our broken immigration system has created shortages of farm labor across California and the rest of our country,” Feinstein said. “This bipartisan bill will fix that and bring farmworkers out of the shadows. It’s time we give farmers the help they need while protecting the hardworking people who put food on our tables.”

United Farm Workers, the union that represents agricultural workers, has come out in support of the bill.

According to a summary of the bill obtained by McClatchy, the so-called Farm Workforce Modernization Act would provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants who have already been working in the farm and agriculture industry for at least two years and plan to continue in this sector. 

It would make changes to the H2-A visa program, which farmers use to hire foreign nationals for seasonal agriculture work, to make it easier for employers to fill crucial workforce gaps while providing more protections for the workers themselves.

And as a sweetener for immigration hardliners, the measure would make E-Verify — the web-based system that allows businesses to confirm whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States — mandatory for the agriculture sector.

However, because of the expansion of the E-Verify system not everyone is on-board with the legislation.

“We are opposed to E-Verify in principle but as part of a compromise for legalization and more workers, it’d be a sacrifice worth making,” said Cato policy analyst David Bier. Bier said he had heard that “a bipartisan group is close to a deal” on the proposal.

Some farmworker advocates are lobbying to grant farmworkers legal status without requiring future E-Verify checks, while some Republicans want mandatory E-Verify use without granting legal status to any current workers.

A position paper from the Farm Bureau last year said the group would consider mandatory E-Verify in exchange for granting legal status to current workers and a better guest-worker visa program.

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With Immigration Fees Set To Increase, Advocacy Groups Are Hosting “Citizenship Weeks” To Help People Get Their Documents In On Time

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With Immigration Fees Set To Increase, Advocacy Groups Are Hosting “Citizenship Weeks” To Help People Get Their Documents In On Time

Damen Wood / Getty Images

Becoming a U.S. resident or citizen has never been an easy process. The country’s immigration system is a convoluted mess that sharply leans in favor of high-wealth individuals and under the Trump administration that is becoming more apparent than ever.

But 2020 has been an especially challenging year for immigrants seeking to complete their citizenship process.

Although it’s common for interest in naturalization to spike in the months leading up to presidential elections, the Coronavirus pandemic forced the citizenship process to a grinding halt in March. The outbreak shut offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) all across the country. And although many of these offices reopened in July, there is a widening backlog of applications.

Meanwhile, on October 2, looming fee increases could leave applications and citizenship out of reach for tens of thousands of immigrants, as the process becomes significantly more costly.

Many migrant advocacy groups are hosting events meant to help immigrants complete their applications before prices are set to rise.

In South Florida, the Office of New Americans (ONA) — a public-private partnership between Miami-Dade County and non-profit legal service providers — launched its second Miami Citizenship Week on Sept. 11. This 10-day event is designed to help immigrants with free legal support so participants can beat the October 2 deadline.

In addition, the event will host a mix of celebrations meant to highlight the social and economic contributions of South Florida’s large immigrant communities.

“I think in Miami we talk about how we are diverse and how we are adjacent to Latin America, but we never take a moment to celebrate immigrants and the amazing work that they do whether it’s the nurses in our hospitals, the drivers that drive our buses, small business owners,” said Krystina François, ONA’s executive director. “We need to reclaim the narrative around immigrants and around our communities because it’s what makes us great.”

However, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions, the events will all be hosted online.

Much like any other event, Covid-19 has greatly impacted this year’s “Citizenship Week.” Therefore, the event will be hosted virtually. That includes the Mega Citizenship Clinic, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 16-20. At the event, pro-bono lawyers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Americans for Immigrant Justice and other groups will connect with attendees one-on-one on Zoom and walk them through the process of filling out the 20-page citizenship application form. 

The clinic is open to immigrants eligible to become naturalized citizens, meaning permanent residents who have had a green card for at least five years.

Cities like Dallas are also getting in on similar events, meant to welcome new residents and citizens into the city.

Dallas’ Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs is hosting a series of virtual events from Sept. 12 to Sept. 20 in honor of Welcoming Week. The virtual events aim to promote Dallas’ diverse communities and to unite all residents, including immigrants and refugees.

According to the City of Dallas, this year’s theme is Creating Home Together, and it emphasizes the importance of coming together as a community to build a more inclusive city for everyone.

Participants will be able to learn about the voting process and what will be on the next ballot during the “Vontando Por Mi Familia: Enterate para que vas a votar” event. The event, hosted in partnership with Mi Familia, will be presented in Spanish.

A Council Member, Jaime Resendez, will host a virtual program on Tuesday at 11 a.m. that celebrates Latinx art and culture. The event will celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Mayor Eric Johnson will read the Welcoming Week Proclamation, and the event will feature art exhibitions and performances showcasing the talents of performers and artists across Dallas.

Attendees will also have a chance to learn more about the availability of DACA and a citizenship workshop will take place where articipants will learn how to complete their N-400 application for citizenship. Volunteer immigration attorneys and accredited representatives from the Department of Justice will be there for assistance.

The events come as fees for several immigration proceedings are set to rise by dramatic amounts come October 1.

Starting on October 2, the financial barrier will grow even taller for many immigrants as fees are set to increase. The fee to apply for U.S. citizenship will increase from $640 to $1,160 if filed online, or $ 1,170 in paper filing, a more than 80% increase in cost. 

“In the middle of an economic downturn, an increase of $520 is a really big amount,” François told the Miami-Herald.

Aside from the fee increase, many non-citizen immigrants never truly felt the need to become citizens. That was until the Coronavirus pandemic hit and had many questioning their status in the country.

“There are people who up until this COVID crisis, their status as a permanent resident didn’t impact their day-to-day life … but then the pandemic has given them another reason of why it’s important to take that extra step and become a citizen, because of the additional rights and protections that are afforded to you, but also to just have a sense of security and stability in a crisis.”

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Farmworkers Are Testing Positive For Covid-19 At Record Numbers, So What Are Officials Doing To Help?

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Farmworkers Are Testing Positive For Covid-19 At Record Numbers, So What Are Officials Doing To Help?

Brent Stirton / Getty Images

Every day, California farmworkers worry that the pandemic plowing through agricultural hubs will catch them and kill them. They also worry that not working will kill them. Now, there is further evidence that their worries are grounded in reality.

A recent survey – the Covid-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) – points out the grim reality this vulnerable community faces as they work to support the nation’s ongoing need for food services.

California’s farmworker community – now considered essential – is being hit hard by the Coronavirus.

California’s agricultural communities have been hit the hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic. From Imperial County along the U.S.-Mexico border to Fresno County in the Central Valley, these counties are also home to large migrant communities who are considered ‘essential workers’ as they work California’s farms and ranches.

As new details emerge, a grim picture of the virus among farmworkers is emerging. The Covid-19 Farmworker Study (COFS) reinforces the dire warnings that farmworker advocacy organizations made when the coronavirus lockdowns began: The least protected essential workers in the country, toiling under environmental conditions like excessive heat, pollution and dust, are being devastated by the coronavirus, directly and indirectly. 

Now, five months into the pandemic, infection rates are spiking. Fresno County is experiencing 435 cases for every 100,000 residents; in Tulare it’s 472 and in Merced it’s 564. The statewide average: 269.

Though county figures say about 31% of overall cases are in the Latino community, some on the front lines estimate that up to 70% of cases from the recent spike have hit in that demographic, in a region where they account for about 42% of the population, according to census figures. Experts agree that official case counts across the state may be low because of testing problems.

And experts agree that fighting Covid-19 in the Central Valley could be an uphill battle. Many farmworkers live in crowded, dorm-like buildings. And thanks to a hostile government, many migrants are fearful of seeking any sort of medical or legal or financial help. Many of the people most at risk do not speak English and are traditionally hard for government to reach. Therefore, packing plants have emerged as coronavirus clusters in parts of the state.

The state is struggling to get a hold on the outbreak but officials have launched a new program they hope will have an impact.

The recent spike in infection rates within the Central Valley has drawn national attention, and now seems to have the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom. His administration is dispatching three of his Coronavirus ‘strike teams’ to the region to help local officials track cases of Covid-19, inspect workplaces, quarantine the sick, and ramp up testing within vulnerable groups.

Each team, consisting of about a dozen experts on health, housing, public outreach, agriculture and other fields, will try to contain an alarming spread through the region. Much of their work will focus on the San Joaquin Valley, where agricultural fields and crowded food-processing plants have become fertile ground for the virus.

“If you asked me today what our biggest area of concern in a state as large as ours, it is indeed the Central Valley,” Newsom said recently in announcing the deployment. “We need to do more for our agricultural and farmworkers.”

In addition to the strike team, the state is allocating $52 million in federal money to help improve testing and contact tracing within the valley. It’s also spending $6 million in private donations to buy food and other basics for low-income Valley residents whose livelihoods have been threatened by the pandemic.

But for many farmworkers, despite the risk, they have little choice but to continue to work.

Credit: Brent Stirton / Getty Images

California’s farmworkers have long been one of the state’s most vulnerable communities. Now that the pandemic has ravaged the state’s economy, migrant farmworkers are considered ‘essential workers’ and are exempt from many of the protective lockdown orders, forcing them to risk their health while at work.

Meanwhile, the collapse of food service (restaurants and institutions) has le to the shutdown of farms across the state and roughly 20% of farm jobs have been cut – that amounts to nearly 100,000 workers. Those who are still working have largely seen their hours cut. So for many, they have little choice but to return to a dangerous job or risk juggling bills and going hungry.

On the job, however, workers lack control of their own safety. Fewer than half of those surveyed said they had received masks from their employers. Even among those who had, they had received them once or a couple of times. (Farmworkers generally wear face coverings to protect themselves from pesticide dust, dirt and the sun. More than 95 percent of those surveyed said they are masked in the fields.) 

Social distancing is still an idea, not a reality, for many of those surveyed. In some cases, farmworkers who asked for better protections, such as more distancing in the fields, or hand sanitizer, have faced retaliation. Crew bosses have punished them by cutting their hours or days, advocates said. 

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