Monday, July 12, 2004 | “At least if I had legalization through AgJOBS, I would see them once a year.” | The Modesto Bee


Last Updated: July 12, 2004, 06:04:04 AM PDT

LIVE OAK — Peaches are in season, and Leticia Lopez has just spent six hours doubled over a bin, picking out the misfits.
Lopez came to this small town north of Yuba City about a year ago, leaving five children — ages 3 to 17 — in Michoacán, Mexico, so she could earn money for them here. The 34-year-old widow finds it difficult and frightening without her family and without papers.

In Mexico, Lopez made about $15 a week cleaning houses and washing clothes. Here, she makes $6.75 an hour sorting peaches. So, like countless other armworkers, Lopez hopes Congress will approve a guest-worker program that will let immigrants live and work in the United States legally.

“I wish there would be an opportunity for me to bring my family with me,” Lopez said. “There needs to be some way for people to come into the country.” But Lopez’s hopes are colliding with Capitol Hill obstacles.

Despite high hopes by proponents and furious Senate maneuvering in recent days, the only immigration reform plan deemed to have a chance in Congress this year has stalled.

The measure, informally known as AgJOBS, would grant qualified agricultural workers and their families temporary legal status in the United States. Ultimately, participants could obtain permanent legal status upon completing additional farm work over the next three to six years.

The United Farm Workers estimates the legislation could affect roughly 500,000 workers and family members nationwide, the largest concentration in the Central Valley. But that’s only if it passes.

“My personal assessment is that it’s highly unlikely the legislation will move this year,” said Rep. Cal Dooley, a Fresno-area Democrat who supports it. “It’s too polarizing … and I think the Republican leadership views it as too divisive in their own conference.”

Technically, the bill isn’t dead. With 63 on-the-record supporters, it’s possible the Senate could pass it this year. But even if it does, no House committee or subcommittee has held a hearing on the legislation in the 10 months since it was introduced, and little time remains.

A symbol of the bill’s difficulties occurred Wednesday, when Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig sought to tack the bill onto an unrelated class-action lawsuit reform bill. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist fended off the effort.

“There are some who do not want immigration as an issue voted on this year,” Craig complained.

All of which marks a stunning comedown for immigration reform advocates who rolled out their hard-fought compromise proposal in September. Backed by dozens of groups, from the California Farm Bureau Federation to the UFW, AgJOBS was billed as the one immigration bill with enough support to pass a divided Congress.

“This is the first time in 40 years that I’ve ever seen the type of cohesiveness from groups,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, which represents about 1,000 growers from Kern County to Stockton. Farmers want stability and reliability, and they are tired of dealing with problems associated with a largely undocumented work force, Cunha said.

A large-scale Border Patrol raid could “cause total devastation in (the) industry” by spurring migrants to “start to hide and flee,” he warned.

What of future illegal workers?

Groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform believe there should be more raids and better enforcement of immigration laws, and they are pleased that AgJOBS has been stopped.

These skeptics consider the bill a first step toward a broad-based amnesty that would give permanent legal status to the millions of illegal immigrants.

“There’s nothing to say that if we legalize all these illegal workers, they won’t simply be replaced by the next wave of illegal immigrants,” said Ira Mehlman, FAIR’s Los Angeles-based spokesman.

Immigration reform seemed to receive a big boost in January, when President Bush unveiled a proposal to offer temporary legal status to millions of immigrants, not limited to farmworkers.

To qualify, they would have to prove they have legitimate jobs or job offers in the United States. Since then, though, the White House has done little to assist the legislation. The administration never submitted formal legislative language. The White House Web site’s last update on the topic is a March 6 appearance by Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

And Bush has all but dropped the topic in his public talks.

Bush’s opponent in the fall, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, told a Latino group in New Mexico on Saturday that he would send Congress an immigration reform overhaul plan making it easier for immigrants to become citizens.

“Today, our immigration system is broken,” Kerry said.

Two proposals in conflict

The Bush proposal itself might have complicated passage for AgJOBS by rallying opponents against immigration reform and splitting coalitions among different approaches.

For instance, Bush insisted that a temporary guest-worker program not be linked to achieving permanent legal status, while a path toward legalization is the centerpiece of AgJOBS.

“I think it’s a mistake to once again give (illegal immigrants) a shorter route to citizenship,” said Tracy Republican Richard Pombo.

“I do believe we need a guest worker program. I do not believe that the right way to do that is to take the people who came here illegally and give them a quick pass to legalization.”

It’s not as if all farmworkers are waiting breathlessly for the measure to pass.

On Wednesday night, 14 migrants gathered in a classroom in Yuba City for their English-language class.

Not one had heard of AgJOBS.

But Luis Elias has. The 29-year-old Fresno County man, who picks peaches, nectarines and grapes, says he just wants to see his wife and three children in Guerrero. He says he hasn’t seen them in three years, because it has become so difficult — and dangerous — to cross the border from Mexico back into the United States.

Elias felt a glimmer of hope when he learned about AgJOBS last year, and he remains optimistic it will pass so he can safely reunite with his loved ones.

“Three years is a long time not to see your family,” he said.

“At least if I had legalization through AgJOBS, I would see them once a year.”


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