Fate of immigration reform lies in the hands of agricultural farmers

The new immigration reform would let many agricultural workers stay in the U.S. permanently and create a new visa to benefit dairy and horse farms that don’t rely on seasonal help. CNN reported that agricultural workers who are currently in the country illegally would be allowed to apply for this “blue card” if they have worked in the U.S. agriculture industry for at least 100 days in the two years prior to December 31, 2012. Farm workers who document reputable work histories over that period would be eligible for year-round residency under the new system, even if they entered the country illegally.

In order to successfully apply for the blue card, farmers must also pay a $400 fee, show they have paid their taxes and have clean crime records. In the first five years, there will be 112,000 blue cards distributed, and workers would be allowed to have legal residency in five years instead of 10. The proposed immigration overhaul would also create a program offering year-round visas to non-immigrant agricultural workers for up to three years. The visas could be renewed once for another three years. After that, workers would be required to leave the U.S. for at least three months before returning.

The legislation, supported by the National Milk Producers Federation and the United Fresh Produce Association, would help growing dairy farms and traditional horse farms that need year round workers. Members of the Republican-led House of Representatives are working on their own immigration overhaul plan, which also includes border security measures. Farmers are hoping that the new legislation will be able to move through the House, where it will most likely face a tough challenge from conservatives who have been unwilling to accept previous attempts to change the immigration system.

“Republicans from big agriculture districts will definitely be the deciding factor in getting any type of immigration reform through the House,” diary farmer Dean Norton told The New York Times. “There is a lot of clamoring in these districts to do something about immigration.”

Of the estimated 2 million immigrant farm workers in the U.S., about 1.2 million use false documents, farm industry groups reported on April 17. The legislation specifies that farms employing workers who intend to apply for blue cards would be immune from legal action by immigration authorities. Participants would become “registered provisional immigrants” who would be required to pay taxes and begin learning English. After five years of working in agriculture, they could apply for green cards and, after another five years, apply for citizenship. Blue card holders could also opt to work in a different industry.

“There’s going to be a lot of relief for our dairy farmers, our apple growers and our other specialty crop growers,” Senator Charles Schumer told the Chronicle. “I think we’re going to see our agriculture industry start growing at a much greater pace because of this bill.”

For farmers in California, Vermont, New York and other northeastern states, the bill would allow them to stay and work, or leave the country. According to Reuters, strawberry farmers like Adolfo Rodriguez Lopez, 41, would be able to return to Mexico to see his family for the first time in 12 years.

“When they get sick and you need to see them, you’re not able to,” said Lopez. “Not only is it important to see my family, there is a certain tranquility of knowing that you’re legally here and don’t have to worry about the police.”