Farmers assess president’s move on immigration

Issue Date: November 26, 2014
By Christine Souza

Speaking on behalf of farmers and ranchers in California and nationwide that rely on an immigrant workforce, a number of agricultural organizations, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the executive action by President Obama on immigration falls short of the long-term solution needed by farmers and their employees.

At the same time, farmers and agricultural groups are working to determine how many farm employees may qualify for the programs the president announced, and how his action affects the prospects for permanent reforms to immigration policies.

"Farmers, ranchers and their employees need a permanent solution," CFBF President Paul Wenger said. "We understand the president's frustration with the lack of action. We're frustrated, too. But we're equally frustrated by the failure of the president and congressional leaders to sit down and work something out."

Wenger said action by Congress will be needed to provide "true, long-term reform" that allows immigrants to work in agriculture, and that provides a clear path for experienced but unauthorized employees to work legally in the United States.

The White House reported that the plan announced by the president last week would provide relief from the threat of deportation for 5 million undocumented immigrants, strengthen border security, address high-skilled foreign workers, and expand assistance to undocumented residents brought to the United States as children.

Likely to affect farm employers and employees under the president's plan is a provision that would expand the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to include more immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, and the creation of a new deferred-action program for people who are the parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, who have lived in the U.S. for five years or longer, and who register, pass a background check and pay taxes.

"With the new Deferred Action for Parental Responsibility, the same decision will be made with respect to parents of U.S. citizens and illegal permanent resident aliens who have been in the United States for at least five years, haven't committed a felony and who register with the government," said Bryan Little, CFBF director of employment policy. "This means they will be known and the government will decide not to deport them, because they are not a priority for deportation."

It's uncertain how many California farm employees could qualify under the president's action, but the United Farm Workers estimated that at least 250,000 farmworkers nationwide—including at least 125,000 from California—would qualify for administrative relief.

Beyond the question of how many farm employees would qualify, there's the additional question of how many would come forward to take advantage of this opportunity, Little said, noting that when deferred action was made possible in 2012, it is widely believed that about one-third of those eligible actually availed themselves of the opportunity.

"If one-third of the farmworkers take advantage of this new deferred-action program and UFW figures are correct, something like 40,000 employees may agree to take part," said Little, who also serves as chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service.

Farm organizations estimate that approximately 450,000 people work on California farms and ranches during peak harvest season. A number of estimates have placed the proportion of unauthorized immigrants in the farm workforce at between 50 percent and 70 percent or more.

While some farmworkers should qualify under the presidential action, other questions remain.

First, it is unclear what, if any, employer obligations and potential liability will be. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will determine what documentation is necessary to prove residency. Farm Bureau has concerns about placing that burden on employers, Little said, especially if responding to an employee's request for employment and residency information might give the employer knowledge of an employee's unauthorized status.

In addition, there is the practical question of whether farm employees will take advantage of a temporary program, considering they would not be a priority for deportation but that the program could be rescinded as soon as after the next presidential inauguration, as politics change.

It is also uncertain when all guidelines and programs to put the president's plan into action will be in place, as much work is yet to be done by Homeland Security to formulate the implementation details. However, the agency must implement the expansion of DACA and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability no later than 90 days and 180 days from Nov. 20, respectively.

The president's action on immigration has increased tensions on an already volatile political issue, said CFBF Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Thompson, yet she said Farm Bureau continues to focus its efforts on Congress.

"In order for us to have a long-term solution for both those currently working in farming and the availability of people to work in farming in the future, we will need Congress to act," Thompson said. "We hope the president's actions don't take away from the pressure on Congress to reform an immigration system that is not working."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.