As many as 400,000 California undocumented farmworkers may get a fast
track to legal status under a potential landmark accord between the agricultural
industry and the United Farm Workers union.
The agreement, hashed out with key guidance from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D- Calif., stands to be a major component in sweeping immigration legislation introduced Wednesday in the Senate.
Backers hail the farm labor accord, which still faces an arduous path through Congress, as an elixir to a significant worker shortage in California's $44.3 billion agricultural industry and beyond.
The potential symbolism of the deal was underscored Wednesday as ag industry leaders and a longtime adversary -- the UFW -- praised the plan in a joint press conference in Washington, D.C.
The deal would allow undocumented people who worked steadily in agriculture in recent years to receive a "blue card" legal work permit while speeding up prospects of achieving permanent legal residency. It would also establish a new agricultural guest worker program with wage protections.
"This further symbolizes the historic moment we are engaged in here," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.
He said the pact could mean hundreds of thousands of undocumented farm laborers in California and beyond would "be able to immediately work without fear of being deported."
As many as 1.2 million farmworkers in the United States arrived as illegal immigrants. In California, undocumented workers account for the overwhelming majority of 450,000 seasonal farm laborers in the nation's most bountiful agricultural belt.
A UFW official estimated that as many as 300,000 California farmworkers may qualify for legal status under the plan to offer the "blue card" to people who can demonstrate they worked 150 days in agriculture between Jan. 1, 2011, and the end of 2012.
A leading growers association, the Nisei Farmers League, representing 1,100 California farms, poultry and dairy outlets and packing and processing firms, estimated the number of qualifying state laborers at 400,000.
League President Manuel Cunha Jr. said the legislation is needed because California agriculture could face a shortfall of 80,000 seasonal laborers this year because of a declining workforce as immigration enforcement and border violence scare away workers.
"If this gets signed into law, the workers will now be safe," he said Wednesday of a potential long-term solution. "Growers can wake up in the morning knowing that their workforce -- which they have trained for years -- is here."
The plan has been blasted by groups opposed to immigration expansion as providing an unfair break for agriculture and laborers who came here illegally.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a statement Tuesday criticized the overall immigration bill as offering "amnesty and providing business interests access to low-wage foreign labor."
Odilia Chavez, 40, of Madera hopes the plan means she can work without fear in California and travel to and from Mexico with less peril. She has harvested crops from strawberries to lettuce to garlic since 1999.
"That would be so much better. I hope to God it is true," said Chavez, who is raising two California-born children and whose Mexican-born oldest son, 19, is a
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