By Jenny Manrique
For generations, Leydy Rangel’s family has worked in the fields of California: her parents, brothers, uncles and cousins have done for decades the difficult and skilled work necessary to keep America fed.
She herself has been picking onions and strawberries since she was 13 to pay her way through college. Since she came to the country at age 8, it is the first time that she is hopeful that a reform, approved so far in the House of Representatives, can change their undocumented status and recognize how essential they have been for society.
“Growers say they need a stable workforce and undocumented farmworkers need legal status,” said Rangel, the National Communications Manager for the United Farm Workers (UFW) Foundation, during a conference organized by Ethnic Media Services.
“That is why in 2019, after very long months of complex but thoughtful negotiations between lawmakers from both parties, the UFW Foundation, United Farm Workers and most of the nation’s grower associations, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act was created.”
HR1603 passed the House on March 18 by a vote of 247 to 174 with 30 republicans supporting the bill. It seeks to provide a path to legal residency and citizenship for nearly 1.1 million workers who are estimated to be undocumented in the country’s fields. It would benefit those who certify 180 days of agricultural work during the last two years prior to March 8, 2021 and pass a criminal background check. The status will be valid for five and a half years and can be extended.
The Act also modifies the H2 visa to a temporary agricultural visa for future workers. It guarantees them a minimum number of hours of work regardless of the weather and other extenuating circumstances, and adjusts laborers’ salaries. Their immediate family members in the country would also be able to apply for a work permit and be protected from deportation.
“During the pandemic, farm workers have been more vulnerable than ever, more at risk of COVID due to the reality of their transportation, crowded housing, and carpooling to place of work,” said Rangel, who is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) beneficiary.
“With legal status and a path to citizenship, farmworkers will have tools to deal with serious labor issues and abuses,” such as pesticide protection, heat standard, hazard pay and other worker protections.
DACA, TPS and DED
Another bill that also passed on March 18 in the House was HR6, known as the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021. With a vote of 228 to 197 – with 9 Republicans in favor – it seeks to provide relief from deportation to approximately 2.7 million people, including beneficiaries of DACA , holders of TPS (Temporary Protected Status) and DED (Deferred Enforced Departure), and the DALCA kids (Deferred Action for Legal Childhood Arrivals), dependents of highly-skilled foreign workers, who age out of their status once they turn 21.
“HR6 would grant conditional permanent resident status for 10 years to those who were 18 years of age or younger when they first entered the U.S., and have been continuously physically present in the US since January 1, 2021”.
“They must pass a background check and complete their educational programs, or term of military service or be employed,” explained Theresa Cardinal Brown, Managing Director, Immigration and Cross-Border Policy, at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“Those who receive cancellation of removal under TPS or DED status, would be eligible for permanent residence within three years from the date of enactment (of the law),” she added. Estimates by the Migration Policy Institute indicate that up to 3 million people would be eligible.
Patrice Lawrence, Co-director of UndocuBlack Network, recalled that the TPS and DED relief measures cover nationals of 13 countries, 9 of which are black majority countries.
In the case of workers who came to the country with a work visa that allowed them to legalize their children (DALCA) once they obtained their permanent residence, the backlog in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have caused these children to age out, rendering them ineligible for dependent status.
“After all those years of waiting, parents file a new petition but the son is already 21 years old … now they have to wait another 10 years because they lose their priority date,” explained Brent Renison, Partner, Global Immigration Counsel.
“Due to inefficiencies, the agency (USCIS) itself has failed to issue over 400,000 visas over the years … Those are in the family category (Mexico and the Philippines have the longest waiting times) and employment category (India and China top this list). They all need to be protected by HR6.”
Battle in the Senate
The real battle for both bills, HR1603 and HR6, is in the Senate, where bills require a 60-vote majority to pass. To overcome the limitations of a 50/50 split in the Senate, Democrats need to recruit the votes of at least 10 Republicans or, if the bill is considered under a special budget maneuver known as “reconciliation,” to use the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie.
For HR1603 there is no direct companion bill in the Senate and for HR6, the closest legislation is the Dream Act 264, which was reintroduced in February by Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and co-sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
“That bill has some stricter requirements than HR6 and does not cover TPS or DALCA holders. It is estimated that it could cover about 2 million dreamers, ” explained Cardinal Brown.
But Senator Graham has said that he does not believe the bill can be passed until the situation at the border with unaccompanied children is addressed. In March, migration at the southern border soared to 172,000 people according to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data.
Both HR1603 and HR6 benefit immigrants who are within the United States and do not apply to those arriving through the southern border.
“We can do both and should do both,” said José Alonso Muñoz, National Communications Manager for United We Dream.
Muñoz came to the U.S. when he was just a few months old and has been living with the uncertainty of being undocumented for 30 years. In 2013, he received DACA and was able to obtain a work permit, a driver’s license, and finish college. While this alleviated some of his fear of potentially being detained and deported, in the past four years he feels he has lived from “court case to court case, even after the Supreme Court thwarted the Trump administration’s plans to end DACA in June.”
The DACA program, which today benefits some 600,000 people, continues to be at risk in a court in Texas that could rule at any time on its legality.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, 74% of Americans support granting protection to dreamers and according to a FOX News poll, that number reaches 60%. Public opinion is decisive in the districts and states where the reelection of representatives and senators is at stake if there are contenders in the primaries.
But in the discussions in the Senate, the priorities may be different. According to lawyer Renison, it is very difficult to “depend on the Republicans unless the filibuster is reformed.” It currently requires 60 members to finish the debate on most of the issues before going to a vote.
Joseph Villela, director of policy and advocacy for the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants (CHIRLA) believes that while it is unlikely that 10 Republican senators would cross the aisle to support these reforms, both parties rely on some form of stoking their base when it comes to immigration.
“If the Republican Party wants to potentially change the brand it had under Trump, this is the opportunity for them to provide relief to immigrants and get rid of that label of being a party that caters to white nationalist organizations as well as racist organizations,” Villela said.
“We also urged the Democratic majority to use all the tools they have to attach any immigration relief to an infrastructure bill, and to reform the filibuster. They should consider doing a true reconciliation,” he concluded.