Viewpoints: In immigration reform, half an enchilada is better than no enchilada

With the release of the biopic Cesar Chavez film, the persistent drought in California and the plight of the agriculture industry in the state’s Central Valley, farmworkers are once again in the spotlight. Farm owners are questioning their political allegiances and restricting election campaign contributions in the face of legislative inaction in Washington, D.C. Again, this year, crops are rotting on the vines around the Golden State as the agricultural industry faces a diminished labor pool due to our nation’s harsh immigration laws.

It is no secret that our immigration laws are arcane. When it comes to the demands of the food industry, they are simply counterproductive. It can takes months to apply for a seasonal worker’s visa (assuming the applicant qualifies for it), far longer than it takes to grow and harvest most fruits and vegetables.

One of my clients, who had worked for the same grower for decades, started off as a legal seasonal worker returning to his home country after each job ended. For fear of not being able to return to the United States, he eventually stopped returning to his home. Now in his late 60s, short of immigration overhaul, he has no possibility to legalize his status.

This is a common scenario on farms across America where half of the 2 million seasonal farmworkers are estimated to be undocumented. However, unlike in Cesar Chavez’s days, most farmworkers today are not out to start a revolution, they just want legal status to live and work in the United States in a dignified way including avoiding the constant risk of deportation. This month, President Barack Obama’s administration deported its 2 millionth person, more than any other president in history.

The stakes are also high for employers who face the possibility of huge fines and prosecution for employing undocumented workers. In an effort to avoid the immigration laws, many growers have had to resort to using labor contractors to hire and supervise farmworkers. This situation creates insecurity for the entire industry. Not surprisingly, each day we are becoming more reliant on imported fresh produce.

One thing that both the workers and the growers have in common is a shared disillusion with the current immigration legal system and the lame attempts to address this perennial challenge. A bipartisan, common-sense bill just focused on agricultural jobs would allow undocumented labor to come out of the shadows and continue to help grow the economy, let alone feed our country.

The Senate bill that has been languishing in the House of Representatives for months includes a path to citizenship along with an agricultural stakeholder agreement for the farm industry. The proposed agriculture program would replace the current temporary agricultural worker program and provide for an earned legalization program that would help many and recognize the hard work and loyalty that the farmers have shown this country. In an effort to bring the bill to the floor, House Democrats last month introduced a discharge petition, a move which some analysts rightly contend may be unsuccessful.

There is fear that undertaking immigration reform in stages will not result in enough reform to overhaul the whole system. But there should also be fear that the agriculture industry will be decimated and food prices will sharply increase.

While many in the Latino community want a comprehensive immigration reform bill to be passed into law – what has been called “the whole enchilada” – it is not likely to happen in this election year. Pragmatism dictates that a series of smaller legislative victories is the right path for now, certainly with respect to agriculture jobs. Our nation’s food supply depends on it.

Maybe we can’t have our enchilada and eat it too.