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California farmers prod Congress on immigration reform

This week's failure by Congress to pass either of two immigration reform bills has prompted California's leading agricultural trade group to reiterate, in polite terms, its longstanding demands for a solution to the state's chronic shortage of farmworkers.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson on June 21 issued a statement on the group's behalf calling for an agricultural visa program large enough to accommodate the state's farmworker needs, as well as recognition for "current, highly skilled immigrant employees and help them gain proper documentation."

However mildly worded, the public missive on one of the nation's most divisive political debates reflects farmers' growing frustration with labor costs that have been rising, in part, because of fallout from President Trump's immigration crackdown.

Following months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with members of Congress, the nearly 40,000-member farm bureau federation spoke up after the defeat of a hard-line bill sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va. It failed by a vote of 193-231, with 41 Republican votes in opposition. No Democrats voted to support it.

The measure would have slashed legal immigration, gone after so-called sanctuary cities, increased border security and forced employers to use an electronic system verifying workers' legal status.

The bill also included a "touch-back" provision some see as a poison pill for California farming. It is a requirement that guest workers return to their native countries for 45 consecutive days during the course of a year. Unlike in many other states, California farmers harvest year-round, and farmworkers here have generally settled locally and have no other home.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, voted in favor of the bill. Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, voted against it.

The other bill that had been scheduled for a vote was seen as more of a compromise with Democrats. It offered a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, funding for a wall along the border with Mexico and an assurance that families caught crossing into the United States illegally would not be separated during their U.S. detention.

That legislation, which also includes a 45-day touch-back, was delayed twice and is now scheduled for a vote next week.

Beatris Espericueta Sanders, outgoing executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, which is part of the state federation, said her group has been working with McCarthy on the immigration issue for more than a year. She said her members remain hopeful he will be able to make headway over the weekend on a compromise with the more conservative Republicans in Congress.

"We’re trying to focus our energy on a proposal that provides a solution for current and future guest workers,” she said. "We will still try to keep talking to McCarthy and Valadao about their leadership options in the near future.”

On the question of the touch-back provision, she said Republicans in other farming states don't always appreciate the unique needs of California's ag industry.

"To guys in Georgia or on the East Coast, (the touch-back) works," she said, adding that farmers in other states think California's farm industry "is just trying to be difficult.”

On June 22, Valadao issued the following statement in response to a request by The Californian for a comment on the farm federation's call to action:

“Our immigration system faces several challenges and overcoming these obstacles requires a multi-faceted approach. Protecting DACA recipients (undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children), reforming our visa system, securing our border and implementing an adequate guest worker program to meet the needs of Central Valley industries are all critical components of immigration legislation that I will continue advocating for until a solution is reached.”

McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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