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published on March 4, 2019 - 1:15 PM
Written by David Castellon

If you believe farming is just about soil, water and keeping unwanted pests from your crops, you’d be wrong.

Politics can play a huge role in what farmers do, which was largely why Carlos Gonzalez was among the more than 102,800 people who attended the recent World Ag Expo in Tulare.

Gonzalez, who lives in Tulare, manages two farms and was looking for equipment to help reduce human labor needs because in recent years the availability of farm laborers has gotten much scarcer.

A big part of the reason is that with security tightened along the U.S.-Mexico border and threats by current President Donald Trump to crack down on undocumented immigrants, combined with the growing threat of being robbed and possibly killed by so-called “coyotes” illegally smuggling immigrants into the U.S., there are fewer people coming here willing to work hard, often low-wage jobs in the agricultural industry.

But most every farmer here, whether they’re from California or other parts of the country, likely would agree that a big part of the problem is that federal lawmakers have dropped the ball in revamping this country’s immigration laws, particularly those affecting migrant farm laborers.

Some California lawmakers are looking to change that — at least as far as making changes to help the ag industry.

In January, U.S. Reps. Jimmy Panetta, D-Salinas, and Susan Ellen “Zoe” Lofgren, D-San Jose, along with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, introduced in their respective branches the Agricultural Worker Program Act to shield undocumented farmworkers already here from deportation and put them on paths toward becoming citizens.

Under the act, laborers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in the prior two years may earn “blue card status,” allowing them to continue working in the U.S. legally. Workers who maintain their blue card status for the next three or five years —depending on how many hours they’ve worked — would be eligible to earn green cards, making them lawful, permanent residents.

Gonzalez, who spent 17 years working on farms as an undocumented immigrant before gaining legal residency four years ago, said he could make the change because he married a U.S. citizen, but even then it was a long and difficult process that involved having to return to his native Mexico for a time.

“I’ve had friends here more than 17 years, like me, but they were married already or they got married to somebody illegal like them, so they had no chance to get legal,” he said, adding that he sees the blue card proposal as a great option for migrants here illegally.

But the proposal by the Democratic lawmakers doesn’t address the other, often thorny issues surrounding the immigration debate, which lately has become engulfed by whether to spend billions of dollars to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Instead, the blue card legislation would address just immigration as it applies to the ag industry, and farmers at the Ag Expo who discussed the matter seemed fine with that.

“Right now, the current system sucks. I know guys that have done everything right they can do for 15 years and still can’t be citizens,” said Matthew Haddon, a Bakersfield almond and pistachio farmer, adding that at first blush the blue card idea doesn’t sound bad.

“We used to have a lot of people coming to the dairy asking for work, and now we have a hard time” filling jobs, said Lisa Wilbur of Tulare, co-owner of a dairy farm and grass-fed beef ranch.

She said immigration reform could help, but so far, “We haven’t made any progress. We’ve tried to help people before to be here legally, and they just miss certain loopholes where they can’t be here legally. We needed something a long time ago,” Wilbur said, adding that she wasn’t familiar with the blue card proposal, but at the least something akin to it might help the industry.

One man at the Expo, identified only by his first name, Alvino — because he’s an undocumented immigrant working in agriculture in the Porterville area — said he doubts comprehensive immigration reform will ever happen, but he’s hopeful an approach focused on agriculture’s needs has a better chance of passing.

Andrei Mikhalevsky, CEO of Visalia-based California Dairies, Inc., the state’s largest milk processor, agreed, saying, “I believe you can address farm labor without doing everything at once.”

While he declined to comment on the blue card legislation, he did say, “our current position is this: In order to have a comprehensive agriculture policy, you have to have some kind of guest-worker program.”

But he warned against adopting a “touchback” program that would require undocumented workers to return to their native countries to apply for visas to work here, as such a program might cause substantive losses of experienced workers in the dairy industry, which has no seasons and needs workers year round.

As to people concerned that reforms might allow large numbers of criminals into the country and cost Americans jobs, as President Donald Trump and his GOP supporters have touted, Alvino said criminal background checks should be part of blue card or any other immigration reform.

“I think 97 percent of the people here illegally have no criminal records, because people just come for a better life. I think there should be a really strict screening, because there are a lot of bad people out there, and there is a way to do that.”

Whatever reforms come should include paths to citizenship “So you can choose to stay here, as long as you’re a good citizen,” said Alvino, who has lived undocumented in the U.S. for more than two decades.

As to claims that immigrants take jobs and drain assistance programs, he said, “The problem is we need each other,” as most U.S. citizens wouldn’t want to do the work of farm laborers, but there are plenty of people outside the U.S. willing to do it.

And getting legal residents to pick fruit at wages they would demand, “The price and the cost for that fruit to get farm picked and packed and all that, it’s going to double or triple,” Alvino said.

“Would you be willing to buy an orange at the store at triple the price because the cost went up? No. The job needs to be cheaper, so you can make some profit.”

Gonzalez agreed, noting that “In my country, the small village I came from, there’s about 20 young men 18 to 35 years old. They want to work [here], but it’s too risky. They’ve got the criminals that try to kill you, take your money — $10,000 to $13,000,” he said, adding that another threat is coyotes forcing people to serve as “mules,” transporting drugs from Mexico into the U.S.

He suggested that the U.S. adopt a guest worker program similar to Canada’s, where his sister used to immigrate and work there, “but she became legal five years ago.”
Alvino said he has heard complaints of undocumented immigrants draining social programs, even from the parents of his fiancé — a U.S. citizen — an engineer and a scientist who are white, Republicans, “and all they do is watch Fox News.

“They’re great people, but they believe every immigrant gets paid under the table. They think you can come here and just go to the welfare office and get public help, no matter where you’re from,” he sad “They don’t understand how the system works, because they’ve never had to use it. First of all, if you are an immigrant, you can’t go in and get public help, because you have to show a good Social Security number. Second, when you go to work you have to show a Social

Security number, whether it’s fake or good.”

Alvino said he gets deductions taken from his paychecks, the same as legal residents, the difference being that as an undocumented worker, he can’t file tax returns to get back any tax money he overpaid.

“And the same is true for millions of other undocumented immigrants,” Alvino said.

So it’s not surprising that when asked if he would like to see a blue card program for ag workers initiated, he said, “I’d love it.”

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