Last week, immigrants’ rights groups finally got the papers they’ve been waiting for, an 844-page whopper of a bill that attempts to “fix” the immigration system by promising a little bit to everyone: businesses get workers, workers get jobs and millions of undocumented people get an opportunity to gain citizenship.
One section of the bill sums up the political calculus underlying the legislation: In the plan to overhaul the guestworker system on U.S. farms—the seedbed of the oldest and roughest forms of migrant labor—we can see the strained balance between the interests of profit and the interests of people in determining who gets to become “American.”
Under the current legislative proposal, undocumented farmworkers would receive a new kind of labor visa—called a “Blue Card”—which would enable them to work legally with certain minimum wage guarantees and federal entitlements, like workers’ compensation. These visas, capped at 112,000 annually (a fraction of the undocumented farmworker population of roughly 500,000 to 900,000) would also grant “portability” to workers—i.e., autonomy to switch employers so they’re not chained to a single workplace.
There are additional provisions to protect workers who report labor violations and to make it easier for them to qualify for immigration relief as victims of crime if they’ve been abused or exploited. International labor recruitment—the use of private “middle man” agencies to arrange work visas and job placements—would be more tightly regulated, closing some of the loopholes in the current system that allow recruiters to saddle migrants with exorbitant fees or tie them to abusive, unregulated employers. And the centerpiece of the plan is the “path to citizenship,” which would theoretically allow immigrant workers who are currently undocumented to “legalize.”
But the path to citizenship is fraught with some impossibly high hurdles: The process to gain permanent residency could take about 10 years (the bill provides a shorter timeframe for farmworkers, who are viewed as a special labor category because of their role in the food production system), and an even longer wait to officially naturalize. Activists fear that the various eligibility requirements, from background checks to heavy fees, may end up pricing hundreds of thousands of people out of a green card.
Daniel Sheehan, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), tells In These Times via email that the legalization process might prove prohibitively costly for farmworkers in particular. “Because they are often paid poverty wages and suffer wage theft and other abuses, they may not be able to pay high fines required to secure citizenship,” he says.
Additionally, labor activists note that even if they’re granted legal status, immigrants will continue to face draconian restrictions on public health care benefits, which bar access to Medicaid programs for their first several years of legal residency.
In other words, many migrant farmworkers would have a right to collect a paycheck but lack the right to basic medical care, even when their job gives them a repetitive stress injury or poisons them with pesticide sprays.