Collision Coming Over Farmworker Legalization

By DAVID BACON Pacific News Service
Friday July 09, 2004

SOLEDAD, Calif.—Farm worker unions and the Bush administration are heading rapidly towards confrontation over immigration. 

After three years of arm-twisting, unions like the United Farm Workers, Oregon’s Union de Pineros, and the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee finally have a bill in Congress—called AgJOBS—that would legalize over 1 million agricultural workers living without visas in the United States. But immigrant advocates say the administration, despite a proclaimed interest in Latino votes, has instead played to its right-wing Republican base by launching a national wave of immigration raids. 

The unions have even agreed to expansion of already-existing guest worker programs, widely condemned for the extensive rights violations of immigrants imported as temporary workers. But they face the administration’s “guest worker-only” proposal, and Bush’s declaration that he will not sign any bill granting legal status to the country’s 12 million undocumented residents.  

Some immigration activists even believe that the raids are intended to send a dual message—placating anti-immigrant voters while threatening mass deportations if immigrant communities resist a huge expansion of guest worker programs.  

Since the wave of raids began in June, the number of deportations has mushroomed. They started in Ontario, Calif., on June 5, when 79 immigrants were arrested and deported. The following day in nearby Corona, another 77 people were picked up. The next raid, netting 15 in Escondido, near San Diego, escalated into the deportation of 268 more by mid-June. Reports of raids spread to urban areas in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, traditionally avoided by the Border Patrol because of their long history of organized resistance. 

In upstate New York, agents seized eight workers in a big General Electric research facility in Niskayuna, where they were removing asbestos without adequate protection. The fibers cause a virulent form of cancer, mesothelioma, and the contractor employing the workers, LVI Environmental Services, is under federal investigation for using illegal removal procedures.  

The Border Patrol announced that the deportations were part of an ongoing investigation into the asbestos abatement industry in upstate and central New York. The Laborers Union has been organizing immigrant asbestos workers throughout New York and New Jersey in one of the labor movement’s most successful unionizing drives. The raids will slow that movement by increasing the fear of deportation among workers already risking their jobs by protesting dangerous conditions.  

That fear is spreading in California’s farm worker towns as well. “It’s no secret that a very high percentage of farm workers are undocumented,” says Efren Barajas, a UFW leader. “When people are afraid of being deported, they don’t fight about bad working conditions and miserable wages.”  

In the week before July 4, the UFW organized six simultaneous marches through California valley towns, including a five-day peregrination up the Salinas Valley. They combined protest over the raids with a call for passage of the farm worker AgJOBS legalization bill.  

Unions have become some of the strongest supporters of legalization because fear of deportation undermines the organizing efforts of immigrant workers. Two decades ago, most unions saw undocumented workers as job competition and even strikebreakers.  

But in the 1990s that attitude changed, as immigrants became a large part of the workforce in many industries and unions began organizing them. The UFW was a leading voice at the AFL-CIO’s Los Angeles convention in 1998, which adopted a new pro-immigrant position, including a call for amnesty.  

“The way we see it, they come to this country to make life better for their families,” Barajas says. “They’re hard-working people, who pay taxes like anyone else. They’re not going away, and making people legal is the right thing to do.”  

But legalization for farm workers has a price. In three years of hard negotiations with growers, farm worker unions got agreement to a broad amnesty, but had to agree to relax restrictions on growers’ ability to import temporary contract workers.  

East Coast growers have been accused of massive abuse of guest workers under the existing H2-A program. The North Carolina Growers Association is being sued by North Carolina Legal Aid for maintaining a blacklist of workers who protest bad conditions.  

Farm worker advocates say they’ve negotiated labor protections into the compromise, giving guest workers the right to go to court, but doubt remains that this will enable them to challenge their employers. And unions hope the program won’t expand out of the Southeast, where most guest workers are currently employed.  

“Our interest is legalizing people,” Barajas says. “We had to swallow some things in the bill to get that... If we legalize millions of farm workers, it will be much better than what we have now, and we don’t see any other way to get that.”  

And there lies the coming confrontation with Bush. The administration proposes vast new guest worker programs, and says it will not agree to any amnesty. Unions say they’ve already lined up a veto-proof majority in the Senate, but Congress’ Republican leadership will undoubtedly protect the president in an election year, and prevent a vote that might force his veto.  

But because it is an election year, Latino votes count for legislators, even if they’ve lost their importance to Bush. “If Bush doesn’t see that,” Barajas laughs, “perhaps we should have a new president.” 


David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues.