Undocumented farmworkers could get citizenship from a new bill in Congress

A United Farm Worker organizer reveals the political strategy behind the scenes.

 

It’s been more than five decades since farmworkers in Delano, California, walked off the grape fields and began a five-year strike in what is now considered one of the great movements in American labor history. The strike helped launch the mass organizing of the Central Valley’s agricultural fieldworkers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). Today, the UFW continues to carry on that mission: to build worker power, fight corporate exploitation and advocate for labor protections and fair wages.

In Chavez’s time, the UFW supported immigration restrictions to preserve the wages and jobs of its own members, but these days, protecting undocumented and seasonal workers is a fundamental part of its mission. This requires both organizing in the fields and playing politics in the halls of power. Most recently, it was instrumental in negotiating the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December and now moves to the U.S. Senate. If the bill becomes law, it would provide a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of undocumented farmworkers.

Armando Elenes stands for a portrait in a field in Bakersfield, California. As the secretary treasurer of United Farm Workers, he focuses his organizing around the state’s agricultural labor force.

The proposed legislation, which was introduced with support from agriculture corporations and two dozen House Republicans, presents one of the best chances for significant citizenship expansion in recent years. The union had to make some strategic compromises to get conservatives and industry on board, however, and UFW Secretary Treasurer Armando Elenes acknowledges that he is not happy with some of the bill’s aspects. But the UFW believes in taking a pragmatic approach to coalition building, bringing together members of both political parties along with industry interests. Partial progress is still progress, especially given the Trump White House’s sustained attacks on immigration policy.

Elenes’ life exemplifies the link between American farm work and immigration. Elenes, the son of a migrant farmworker, and his family immigrated to the U.S. from Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1980. It was not an easy journey; they were apprehended by the Border Patrol three times before reaching California, though they eventually qualified for permanent residency there.

As a teenager, Elenes worked in California’s fruit fields and dairies. He got his organizing start in these same fields and worked his way up to UFW’s leadership team, where he helps direct its key campaigns. He recently spoke with High Country News about protecting undocumented workers, organizing strategy and his own story.

High Country News: California is the core of your organizing power, and I'm curious how you think strategically about scaling up to other states or the national level.

Armando Elenes: First of all, you have to understand agriculture. The four biggest agriculture labor states in the country are California, Washington, Oregon and Florida. That's why we focus on the West Coast, in California, where the biggest growers are. There, we got heat-protection legislation passed. It includes things like paid breaks, training and shade. So we've taken the California standards and (are trying to expand) so that farmworkers nationwide can have protections from heat. Same thing with overtime: We finally got overtime pay for farmworkers passed in California in 2016. Now it’s expanding into New York (and possibly Washington, where a court case could set national precedent).

HCN: How much did you have to push the growers to get a deal on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act?

AE: We started negotiating alongside other farmworker groups with the major industry associations, and we came to an agreement with them on how to have a legalization program for farmworkers. 

(The growers) want something done, and so do (farmworkers); we just have different interests. And that’s fine. They want to secure their labor force. What we want is to protect the labor force that’s coming in and to protect the workers who are here.

The first part (of the FWMA) is to legalize a process whereby farmworkers can win their citizenship. They need to show they've been working in agriculture for at least 180 days in the previous two years. Second qualifier: They have no criminal record, no felonies. Third, and this is more of a Republican thing, they have to pay a fine, because they supposedly broke the law. So there's a $1,000 fine.

HCN: That’s a lot of money.

AE: So, again, we had to compromise. We said farmworkers often don’t have that much money, but we had to secure Republican support. Farmworkers would be able to get a visa, a “blue card” that would allow them to work here legally, allow them to go back and forth to their home country.

If they want to get permanent residency, they would have to continue working in agriculture. That’s the growers’ interest in trying to secure their labor force. They could eventually apply for a green card. If someone doesn’t qualify, they would be able to get into the H2A program (for temporary agricultural workers) without having to go back to their home country.  We also included protections for guest H2A workers (including rights in federal court, Labor Department protections and wage standards.)

After workers have an opportunity to adjust their status, then the whole agriculture industry would be required to use E-Verify (a system that confirms a person’s eligibility to work in the U.S.).

HCN: How do you think about when to strike, for example, versus when to negotiate and compromise?

AE: It’s a fine dance with the power you have. Is the workforce ready for some sort of major action? And what exactly are we trying to achieve? It’s more on a case-by-case basis. There are certain things the workers simply won’t accept, and it’s about what the workers want, not necessarily what the organizers want. 

That’s why we compromised on the modernization act. We figured out what’s politically feasible. And we get flak on both sides, because people say, ‘No E-Verify!’ And I say, ‘I don’t want it either, but how else are we going to get something done?’ When you go into negotiations, you want the Cadillac, but sometimes you got to settle for a Chevy. 

HCN: What’s been the impact of the Trump administration's immigration policies on farmworkers?

AE: It’s a huge impact. More than anything it’s the fear tactics, the rhetoric that has scared workers. And not just the rhetoric — they’re seeing the enforcement. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is just doing blanket sweeps. A year ago, in the San Joaquin Valley, we identified 45 farmworkers who had been picked up in one sweep. Five of the 45 had an actual deportation order, but the other 40 just happened to be there. It creates panic. It creates fear. Workers don’t want to go to work or even go outside to take their kids to school.

HCN: Tell me how you got into UFW organizing.

AE: I graduated from high school and wanted to go to college — didn’t have the money to do that. So I enrolled in the Air Force. When I got back to California and started going to junior college, I got involved in the UFW through a student group. Early on, I was able to convince a worker to stand up and start taking action on his own behalf. When I started talking to that worker, he was very afraid of even speaking up. I ended up having to leave the area, but then I came back two months later, and to my shock the worker was in front of a meeting talking to other workers about the importance of speaking up. You could see the total difference in him. That, to me, was the biggest payday: When you see workers who feel they can’t say anything, that they don’t have a voice, and then they find their voice, man, you can’t take that away from them. To me, that’s the pay right there.

This article was updated to reflect that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed the House of Representatives in December 2019.  

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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