Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Half Moon Bay farmer John Giusti in his field of Brussels sprouts. Giusti supports any immigration reform that would help him maintain a solid workforce.
Federal immigration reform will significantly affect the coastal cities of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero as they have San Mateo County’s largest group of agricultural workers who have a specific skill needed to keep the area’s farms producing through the seasons.
This week, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, spoke with members of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau and visited several coastal farms to learn more about their needs and speak about the significance of pending federal legislation.
Members of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau advocated for legally hired temporary or permanent immigrant farmworkers who they said sustain the industry, have taxes taken out of their payroll, support local business, pay rent and are a benefit to society.
Contrary to stereotypes, agricultural workers are skilled laborers, said Erin Tormey, owner of Farm Fatales and Coastside Farmers’ Market organizer. The sustainable food movement has led younger populations to consider careers in farming. However, many don’t realize it’s extremely hard work, so many quit early on, Tormey said. Migrant farm workers on the other hand, have a level of expertise, can keep up with the labor-intensive work and are vital to the industry, Tormey said.
“There’s a need to have a community that supports that population, because they are integral to everywhere, but they’re also highly skilled,” Tormey said.
According to the most recent 2007 U.S. agriculture census, about 2.6 million people work in agriculture, with California leading the nation in farm laborers.
“California is one of the main generators of produce for the country … it is a cornucopia of produce for the country and for the rest of the world … so we’ve got to make sure that this immigration bill is written with California in mind,” Speier said.
The bipartisan Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act introduced in April outlines special treatment of immigrant agriculture workers. Farm workers could be eligible for permanent residency or citizenship after living in the United States for just five years — instead of the 10 years required for other immigrants — if they have worked at least 100 days or 575 hours in the previous two years, don’t have criminal records and have paid taxes. Spouses and children of agriculture workers would also be eligible.
“A pathway to citizenship is a key component of any immigration reform measure and many of these workers who are here working on these farms, they’ve been here for a long time. To somehow suggest that they don’t have the opportunity to become citizens is just wrong,” Speier said.
Due to a lack of consensus between Democrat and Republican legislators on the bill in its entirety, it could be piecemealed to allow parts of it to pass. The problem with this is that you don’t get comprehensive reform that includes paths to citizenship, Speier said.
Most legislators agree enhancing border security is fundamental; but mishandling it could be detrimental to migrant agricultural workers and the farming industry. A common concern among participants on Speier’s tour was the need for a guest worker program.
The Department of Labor currently provides H-2A visas and allows employers to bring foreign workers to the United States to perform temporary agricultural labor. To qualify for H-2As, employers must prove there aren’t sufficient, willing and qualified individuals already in the country.
Although the H-2A system works well in theory, it’s extremely complicated and there are few counties with farmers employing it, said Josh Rolph, representative of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Guest worker program
The bill should include a provisional green card system so that agricultural workers may return to their home countries during off seasons without fear of being unable to reenter the United States, Speier said.
Dave Lea, a third generation Half Moon Bay farmer, grows Brussels sprouts, peas, pumpkins, artichokes and fava beans. Many of his employees have worked with him for decades, as these California specialty crops require hand labor, Lea said.
“We need to make sure we have a good guest worker program. So [workers] can come across the border and then go home at ease when they want to; make sure we have enough good laborers to pick these crops,” Lea said.
Having immigration reform hung up in Congress is costly. Without a guest worker program to offset tightening border patrol, he’s had to abandon crops and finds produce prices rising, Lea said.
John Giusti is also a third generation coastal farmer who finds himself short-staffed. He would like to see “some type of immigration reform that would help with our workforce. We just don’t have enough people coming around looking for work right now,” Giusti said.
Immigration reform needs to include a robust guest worker program; because without people to harvest crops from farmers like Lea and Giusti, consumers will end up paying higher prices, Speier said.
“What is really key to the immigration reform is that people who are here can stay here. They can legally work here and they can live their lives here. That’s a huge step in the right direction,” Speier said. “But we’ve also got to allow these people to become citizens if they want; because there’s responsibilities and rights that come with citizenship and we want to make sure they’re afforded those rights.”