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Farm groups worry about ‘touch-back’ proposal before Congress

After a hard day of work in local vineyards, Teresa Ramirez offered a one-word commentary on the single-most divisive immigration reform measure being debated by Congress: “lies.”

The 47-year-old Lamont mother of four, her arms full of groceries as she exited a store on Weedpatch Highway, was referring to a proposal to force undocumented farmworkers to return to Mexico for a period of at least 45 consecutive days every year.

“How am I going to return without papers?” the Oaxaca, Mexico native asked. “Promises, promises. I don’t believe it.”

Hers was precisely the reaction California’s farming industry worries about as it works with House Republicans to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. Without an adequate labor supply, Central Valley farm wages rise, lowering the competitiveness of one of the world’s most productive agriculture regions.

Congressmen from other states contend that allowing undocumented farmworkers to stay in the country amounts to amnesty. But California farmers argue that the 45-day “touch-back” proposal will cost the state too many workers, and that the measure would also be unfair to longtime undocumented laborers who have no home to return to in any other country.

Observers say the disagreement puts Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, in a particularly difficult position as he tries to avoid a legislative defeat for his party while also protecting California agriculture, which employs about half the nation’s 800,000 undocumented immigrant farmworkers.

“This is not Kevin’s fault,” said George Radanovich, a former congressman from the Central Valley now serving as president of the California Fresh Fruit Association trade group. “Kevin is fighting mightily, but unfortunately, it’s an uphill battle to get something that works for us.”

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday. A spokeswoman for Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, dodged a question about the congressman’s position on touch-backs, saying only that an immigration reform measure set for a vote this week does not include a 45-day touch-back for a class of ag guest workers known as H-2C laborers.

No language in the bill was final as of Monday afternoon, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation noted by email. The group is asking that farmworkers be allowed to maintain residence in the United States while they seek legal status, without ever needing to return to their country of origin.

Nat DiBuduo, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, said a touch-back of any duration would be onerous for California agriculture, partly because there’s no guarantee workers would return safely, if at all. He said that’s hard to understand for farmers in other states, which unlike California, do not have a year-round harvest schedule.

He and others see the debate developing into a dynamic pitting the Golden State against the rest of the country.

“I guess the fear is, will (immigrant farmworkers) come back — and how hard is it for them to come back?” he said. “We have to stand up for farmworkers.”

Lamont irrigation pipe worker Jose Luis Lopez said he doesn’t think anyone would agree to return to Mexico voluntarily and then try to make their way back into the United States.

“It’s very hard to cross,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many days” the touch-back would require foreign workers to stay in their native country.

Grimmway Farms mechanic Fernando Romero said people will do whatever it takes to make a living, but that he doesn’t think the touch-back would work for many farmworkers here now.

“Forty-five days without work there? You can’t,” he said.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said he recently proposed a compromise to McCarthy that would allow undocumented immigrants in fields including agriculture to apply for a five-year work permit. In year three of the process, they would be eligible to apply for permanent residency.

Fees involved in the application processes, plus penalties for past unauthorized work, would raise $14 billion that could be used to fund border security, he said.

“The president needs to say, ‘Look, I want Congress to get this done,’” Cunha said.

Radanovich has offered a different proposal that also would revolve around action by President Donald Trump.

Under his plan, Trump could negotiate a treaty with Mexico that allows guest workers in the United States. Alternatively, he could negotiate a trade agreement with the country — or sign an executive order with Mexico and possibly other countries, Radanovich said.

He said the outcome would be similar to the Bracero program that brought Mexican guest workers to the United States starting in World War II. He contends the program’s expiration in 1964 contributed to the immigration problems still seen today.

“We left the borders open so long,” he said, “that they (undocumented laborers) are here now and we have to deal with it in a responsible way.”

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

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