Immigration Reform Needs to Happen ‘Once and for All’

Apr 10, 2013 No Comments by

FRESNO – Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, says the pressure is on President Barack Obama to deal with the current “flawed” immigration system, and the House and Senate are taking action to deal with the situation.

“The congressmen and senators saw the writing on the wall, that a large percentage of migrants and the public wanted to get immigration dealt with once and for all,” Cunha said.

The House and Senate are currently working on their separate immigration reform bills, and Cunha says agriculture is going to be part of comprehensive reform.  The Senate’s would take care of the current agricultural workforce, most of whom have legal document problems.  Those estimated 11 million undocumented workers and their families would be safe to travel.  It also calls for a guest worker program that works for agriculture, so that when those illegal workers who become residents and citizens retire or take different jobs, there would be the opportunity to bring other workers across the border.

The House’s bill would deal with overall comprehensive reform, as well as agriculture.

Cunha said that of the 11 million undocumented workers across the nation, 1.4 – 1.6 million of them work in agriculture.  440,000 of that number currently reside in California, 230,000 in the San Joaquin Valley alone.  That leaves California with about 38 percent of the total ag piece.

The Nisei Farmers League has been involved in the immigration issue since 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed.  Under IRCA was an agriculture section referred to as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program.  Before labor shortages occurred in 1997 and worsened in 1998, Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.  In 1998, the state’s welfare and unemployment agencies collaborated with Fresno State, UC Stanislaus, Fresno City College, Kings River Community College and Bakersfield College on a program designed to train people in various agricultural occupations.

At the time, the state was short about 80,000 workers, and 1.2 million people were unemployed.  137,000 people were found to work in the Valley, and of the 503 people in the program that applied for the jobs, only three actually went to work.

“It was a disaster for agriculture, so that welfare and unemployment have no relationship to agriculture needs,” Cunha said.

The Nisei Farmers League was organized to protect farms and farm workers from unions and mandatory union contracts.  In addition to immigration, it also tackles other issues, including labor, housing, and water and air quality.  It has been part of the AgJOBS bill, originally introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000.

Cunha is hoping the Senate will take up hearings later this month or in May, and join the House in a May conference.  He hopes that conference will be settled in June, and that Obama will take action in July.

Armando Elenes, a national vice president with the United Farm Workers of America, said the future of our agricultural food supply is on the line, and if comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t take place everything might be imported.  He says that in addition to the situation of figuring out what to do with the undocumented workers that are already here, “future flow,” or workers we will need in the future, also needs to be considered.

“The ones who have legal status should get first dibs on those jobs,” Elenes said.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said there needs to be a way for undocumented workers to be here legally so law enforcement can better respond to crime.  She says human trafficking is a big problem in Fresno County, with immigrants being susceptible to criminals who get them over the border and into America and basically hold them hostage.  These immigrants are not paid properly for their work, or are forced into illegal activity because their family in Mexico is threatened.

“That’s a big problem for law enforcement,” Mims said.  “With no path for them to be here legally, it allows that kind of human trafficking to occur.”

“We need to know when there are crimes going on out there, and we don’t arrest victims of crimes,” Mims continued.

Mims is part of a group made up of law enforcement, as well as the business and farming communities, that is urging immigration reform that would give undocumented immigrants legal status.  “Bibles, Badges & Business for Immigration Reform” is coordinated through Manuel Cunha at the Nisei Farmers League, and was formed about six months ago.

Mims says the border between the United States and Mexico is stronger than ever.  Police chiefs in Fresno County have told her that the illegal immigrants who would come here from Mexico to work seasonally aren’t going back to Mexico like before because it is becoming more difficult to return.

Mims says biometric identification might be a good solution for dealing with the immigration system.  She was recently in Washington, D.C. and was issued a paper card before boarding the metro rail.  When swiped, the card was able to provide a great amount of data, including the amount of money left on the card and when it would expire.

“If you could do that for something like that, why couldn’t you do it with an immigration system, to identify people?”

Agriculture, Government, Headlines

About the author

James Olinger is a native of the San Joaquin Valley. He graduated from West Hills College in Coalinga, California in 2000 with an associate's degree in liberal arts. He joined Business Street in 2004 as a staff writer, and became the associate editor in 2007. He maintains that position today, writing for Business Street Online in a variety of topics.
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