Sunday's Sacramento Bee contains a trio of articles on immigration, including an essay by Paul Wenger, President of the California Farm Bureau Federation, entitled "Pass AgJobs Plan to Allow Seasonal Workers."
The article is incredible, because it leaves out the controversial, key piece of the AgJobs proposal. The "innovation" in the AgJobs program is to allocate 1.35 million green cards to the agriculture industry. Immigrants who can document five consecutive years of agriculture work would be eligible for permanent, resident status. That's a large and unprecedented, government granted "retention bonus" to ensure a steady supply of farm labor and keep wages low. It basically legalizes a 5-year revolving door, where roughly 250,000 to 300,000 low-skill immigrants come to the U.S. each year under the program, work farm jobs for 5-years, then will move out of agriculture when they get their green card. It's a very bold and controversial proposal.
Amazingly, Wenger's lengthy article doesn't even mention the green cards, or the blue cards workers in the program hold during their five year's of agricultural work. He describes AgJobs as a guest worker program where the farm workers will head home after the harvest - not as a permanent residency program where they are earning green cards. Some quotes...
We need a system that allows people from other countries to enter the United States - legally - while farm jobs are available, and to return to their home countries once the harvest season ends.
Fortunately, we have a solution to offer. It's a bill that goes by the acronym AgJOBS, re-introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein last year. The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act would reform existing temporary-worker programs for agriculture, to provide the sort of flexibility that would allow farmers in California and throughout the country to be assured that the people they hire have entered the country legally.
AgJOBS is a major change to immigration law that deserves serious debate. It's proponents in the agriculture industry should describe it honestly.
I want to help hardworking farm workers in the Valley, so it is tempting to support AgJOBS for their sake. But the real problem for the Valley's larger economic development is the chronically low-wages of its largest and most profitable industry, agriculture. In many ways, AgJOBS simply legalizes the status quo of our current low-wage, revolving door farm labor market. It is good for illegal-immigrant farmworkers and farmers, but I don't think it is good for economic development in general and it is very unfair to currently legal workers (farm and non-farm) and non-farm industries (not to mention it's eerie resemblance to indentured service.)
AgJOBS is a proposal that has been around for years, and UC-Davis Professor David Martin had this to say about it in an essay from the year 2000...
... the solution to farm worker problems is not a guest worker program that leaves the farm labor system unchanged. Even most farmers concede that history would likely repeat itself if illegal immigration were to be controlled and there were no new guest worker program. Wages would rise, there would be a rapid adoption of labor-saving machinery and better ways to manage now more expensive workers, and some crops might migrate to lower-wage countries.
Government policy should push agriculture toward a sustainable 21st century future, not permit it to revert to a 20th century "Harvest of Shame" past.