Future of the Central Coast depends on immigration reform

Future of the Central Coast depends on immigration reform
By: Rep. Salud Carbajal | 10/10/2018

One of the greatest moments of my life was the day I took my oath of allegiance and became a citizen of this great nation. When I was elected to serve the Central Coast in Congress, I began a tradition of honoring newly naturalized citizens in our community for their patriotic achievement.

Recently, I held my second annual Citizenship Recognition Ceremony right here in Santa Maria. Many of the dozens of new citizens I met and honored during that event share a similar story to mine.

My father arrived in the United States as part of the Bracero Program, and he worked tirelessly in the fields of Oxnard, picking produce to support our family. That program allowed my family to join him, giving my siblings and me a shot at the American dream.

Growing up, I worked alongside my father during summers off school to pick cucumbers, tomatoes, and strawberries under a sweltering sun in the fields. I've felt with my own hands the value our agricultural workers bring to our community, and how the future success of our agriculture is dependent on a functional immigration system.

Data compiled by the statewide University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources division, shows that about half of all field workers here in the U.S. are undocumented. In California alone, 90 percent of field workers were born in Mexico.

The wine grapes, strawberries, nuts, and other profitable crops coming out of the Central Coast are extremely labor intensive; these products require a hard-working, reliable labor force. The bad news is that the labor shortage has cost Central Coast businesses more than $13.1 million in lost crops in 2016 alone.

Fortunately, we have thousands of immigrants ready to step up to the plate if given the opportunity, willing to work long hours in difficult conditions to help Americans put food on our tables.

But instead of focusing our limited federal resources on deporting dangerous criminals, the Trump administration has chosen to target these hard-working immigrants who are at the very core of our agricultural industry. This impractical policy, and the culture of fear and anxiety it creates, holds our country and our local Central Coast economy back.

Our Central Coast farmers have expressed to me many times over that one of their top priorities is immigration reform, specifically preserving the H-2A visa, which gives agricultural employers a means to temporarily hire foreign workers when there is a domestic-worker shortage. This program alone will not address all our labor challenges and workers' rights concerns on the Central Coast.

Now more than ever, we need lawmakers willing to work across the aisle to create avenues for undocumented workers to come out of the shadows, pay taxes, and continue helping our families put food on the table while also giving farmers and ranchers the ability to hire a sustainable, legal workforce to meet future demands.

Bipartisan legislation like the Agricultural Worker Program Act, which I've cosponsored, helps achieve this by creating a path to permanent residency for qualifying farmworkers and gives their families temporary protected status in the interim.

I've co-sponsored legislation that would make workers who pay back taxes and fees, while also possessing no criminal record, eligible to receive a "blue card" work authorization. Along with this "blue card" comes the opportunity to apply for citizenship after five years of work in their respective industry, bringing greater opportunities to more people on the Central Coast.

Despite drought and labor challenges in 2016, San Luis Obispo County's total crop value was a record high at $914 million. The health of the Central Coast's economy is directly tied to the well-being of our agricultural sector, which is fueled by the hard-working people working day in and day out to keep it profitable and prosperous.

Comprehensive immigration reform would give these workers and their families a path to citizenship and hope for a brighter future. For so many immigrants, including myself, attaining U.S. citizenship is the realization of a dream held by all of those who came to this country in search of a better life, and who now can call America home.

In the decades since my family immigrated to the United States, Congress has not made any adjustments to an outdated and dysfunctional immigration system. It's time to fix it, and I pledge to keep fighting for long-term immigration solutions that value workers and ensures the long-term success of our agricultural industry. 

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