The value of crops produced in Kern County? More than $7.5 billion in 2014.

The value of crops produced in Fresno County? Just under $6.5 billion in 2013. The value of crops produced in Tulare County? A record high of more than $8 billion last year.

The value of undocumented immigrants who work in the fields making California the richest agriculture-producing state in the nation if not the entire world?

Priceless.

"This is a labor force that I strongly support," said Beatris Sanders, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau."Kern County agriculture cannot survive without them."

Are you listening, Donald?

It is little wonder, then, that state Assembly members in Sacramento recently passed AB 20 by the overwhelming margin of 69-2. The brainchild of Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, the bill would give undocumented farmworkers already living in California a temporary work permit.

Additionally, their spouses and children who are in school would be allowed to remain in the state without fear of deportation. Workers must have performed a minimum amount of farm labor in California.

Anyone with a felony conviction or at least three misdemeanor ones would not be eligible. AB 20 would only temporarily change the immigration status of a worker, as the permit would have to be renewed.

"This is an innovative effort to hopefully be able to design a program where we would be able to issue work authorization permits in California for the first time," Alejo said in an interview.

So far it has strong bipartisan support, including from Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, though she said in a statement the bill does not address all the immigration issues facing the nation.

"The bill does not hand out additional state benefits to those here illegally, something which I oppose... This proposal addresses Central Valley farming needs, which we can't ignore being that agriculture feeds the nation," Grove's statement said.

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, also voted for the bill. State Sens. Andy Vidak and Jean Fuller, Republicans representing Kern County, haven’t taken a stance yet, their offices said.

Not only are many Republicans backing the measure but so are politically powerful ag groups, including Western Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Kern County Farm Bureau.

Agriculture is a sacred cow that, as noted, produces billions of dollars up and down the Central Valley and the rest of California. Undocumented immigrant farmworkers are the backbone of the industry.

Alejo estimates 50 to 75 percent of the agriculture workforce is undocumented. Some say the number is even higher.

“We support AB 20 because it will create a program to give legal work and residency status to California agricultural workers who are not legally working or residing in California," said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Growers, packers and dairy operators have good reason to be concerned about their workforce. The drought has also contributed to farmworkers leaving California for more stable work in Washington, Oregon and the Midwest, Sanders said.

Farmers need a stable source of workers to ensure the industry keeps humming.

The Pew Research Center reports that the number of undocumented immigrants living and entering the country is decreasing. In 2014, there were roughly 11.3 million compared to 11.5 million in 2011 and 12.2 million in 2007.

"It is definitely an issue," said Matthew Allen, director of California Government Affairs with Western Growers. "We strongly support AB20 and it's a good model for Congress."

Ah yes, Congress! These guys have done nothing recently except political posturing when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform.

So states are taking up immigration measures on their own. While AB20 appears to be sailing through the California legislature, there is some concern about the way the bill is currently written.

The United Farm Workers union, the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation claim AB20 threatens to reduce the amount of money farmworkers earn. There’s a concern the measure could be interpreted as a foreign guest worker program in which employers could bring in foreigners and pay them the state minimum wage, rather than the higher federal wage rate.

They also worry it could undermines federal proposals such as the Deferred Action Program for Adults, which would grant work permits and grant relief from deportation for qualifying individuals. And they claim AB20 is too heavily weighted toward the ag industry.

Alejo remains confident, however, these issues can be worked out. Should the bill be approved and signed by the governor, it's not a done deal.

Since immigration is under federal jurisdiction, the pilot program would require a federal delegation of authority by President Obama.

"California has nothing to lose," said Alejo.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.

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