Farmworker Bill Strikes a Chord in Yakima Area with Labor in Short Supply, House Republicans Weigh Legal Status for Undocumented Immigrants

By Bernton, Hal | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), June 27, 2018 | Go to article overview

Farmworker Bill Strikes a Chord in Yakima Area with Labor in Short Supply, House Republicans Weigh Legal Status for Undocumented Immigrants


Bernton, Hal, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


PARKER, Washington - Sean Gilbert is a fifth-generation grower whose family harvests fruit from about 2,000 acres of Central Washington. They need a lot of help to get the job done, with about 800 workers now harvesting cherries and apricots that hang ripe on the trees.

For years, Gilbert Orchards has largely recruited men and women from the Hispanic community in Central Washington, where many lack valid work documents even though they may have lived here for years.

"These people are productive members of our community, and there has got to be a way for them to come out of the shadows," Gilbert said.

These workers - estimated at more than 1.2 million nationwide - would be able to gain legal status under an amendment that may be included in a broader immigration bill being cobbled together for a possible vote this week in the House of Representatives.

The legislation reflects a Republican acknowledgment that these undocumented immigrants perform a vital task bringing food to the table, and is backed by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside, Washington. But it offers the workers no permanent residency or freedom to try other occupations, or a possible path to citizenship that some conservatives denounce as "amnesty."

Instead, they would become guest workers, who can continue to labor in America's fields and orchards so long as they make periodic trips back home. They would have to leave the country if they stop working in agriculture.

This legislation is under negotiation in the House at a time of heightened tensions in the farmworker community, which has been rattled by President Donald Trump's withering attacks on undocumented immigrants. For some who risk deportation, the recent reports of the federal government separating parents from children along the Mexico border have a fearful resonance.

"I worry about the same," said a single mother of seven who sorts apples in a Yakima-area packing house. "I think, 'what do I need to do to stay out of trouble' " if immigration-enforcement officers come to her job site.

The agriculture amendment has gained traction from an intensifying shortage of farmworkers in a strong economy where there are plenty of other options.

It makes it easier and cheaper to bring foreign laborers to the U.S., in part, by allowing farmers to charge for housing rather than providing it for free as required by current law.

The amendment also would extend these same temporary visas to undocumented workers already in the United States.

"The legislation provides them the ability to come forward and get right with the law," Newhouse said. "They can cross the border legally, work and return home legally."

This issue of farm labor hits close to home for the congressman whose family grows hops and fruit in Yakima County, a Republican stronghold where Trump claimed 53 percent of the vote in 2016.

This month, Newhouse said, he secured a commitment from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to address farm-labor legislation sometime this summer.

The Republican agricultural labor bill has been under development for months, and the provisions Newhouse hopes to see included in this week's legislative package were also part of immigration legislation voted down last week in the House.

The legislation has come under attack from farmworker advocates.

Bruce Goldstein, of Farmworker Justice, says the legislation would separate laborers from their families and undermine their economic bargaining power.

The House Republicans' approach in the proposed amendment has divided the farm community.

Some organizations, including the American Farm Bureau and Wafla, a Washington-based association that helps farmers to hire guest workers, have endorsed the legislation as a way to ease labor shortages and offer a legal option to many U.S.-based workers.

Others have lobbied against it, including the Washington Growers League, of which Gilbert is a member. …

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