Recently, I joined a bipartisan, faith-based pilgrimage to New York to revisit the history of immigration in America. On the ferry ride to Ellis Island, I was struck by the majesty of the Statue of Liberty and how it would be the first sight immigrants would see after weeks or even months at sea. For so many, this first vision of America represented a new life filled with hope, freedom and opportunity.
Today, more than 125 years after that statue was first raised, that dream remains for this nation of immigrants. Here along the Central Coast, that dream is alive for the nearly one in five residents who were born outside the United States. From our rich agricultural fields to our hightech companies, immigrants play an important role in our local economy, while remaining hopeful that they can become citizens of the country they call home.
We can all be proud of our nation’s strong immigrant history. But our current immigration system is broken, and it’s holding our country and our economy back.
Here on the Central Coast, for example, agriculture is a huge part of our economy. For the third consecutive year, San Luis Obispo County’s total crop value was a record high at $861 million last year. In Santa Barbara County, the total crop value was $1.29 billion. Clearly, the health of our agricultural economy is directly tied to the well-being of the Central Coast.
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But farmers, ranchers and vintners along the Central Coast who I have met with over the years tell me they struggle to find a consistent and stable workforce. The wine grapes, strawberries and other specialty crops that thrive on the Central Coast are very labor-intensive, necessitating the need for a reliable, legal workforce. This is just one of the many reasons I fully support comprehensive immigration reform, one that provides stability to our agriculture industry and creates a system to allow hardworking immigrants to emerge from the shadows.
That’s why I was pleased to see a tough but fair expedited path to citizenship for our agriculture workforce in the legislation passed by the Senate. That bill would create a new system to stabilize the agriculture workforce by requiring all workers pay back taxes and fees and have no criminal record before they could apply for citizenship, five years after receiving their “blue card.”
The Senate bill also improves the agriculture worker visa program to ensure a legal and reliable workforce to meet future needs. The program permits workers to be employed in the United States for three years, requires that they are paid a prevailing wage, and allows them to renew their participation in the program once. The bill also allows the secretary of agriculture to increase visa caps in response to marketplace needs to ensure our agriculture industry remains competitive — all important measures to ensure long-term success for our agriculture industry.
Finally, the bill levels the playing field by ensuring that both employers and workers are abiding by the new immigration system through an employer enforcement program. It’s important to note, however, that an employer enforcement program is only feasible if our agriculture industry has the reliable, legal workforce needed to fill demand. That is why we must address immigration reform in a comprehensive way. Enforcement without the reliable supply of legal workers would be devastating for farmers.
Of course, these are only some aspects of what I hope will be addressed through immigration reform. We must also address border security and create a pathway to citizenship for other undocumented immigrants who have a clean criminal record, pay any back taxes and fees, and study English. We must improve our work visa system to address economic needs down the road and we must grant citizenship for DREAMERs, people brought to the United States as minors who have lived their lives in America.
The Senate has taken steps to advance comprehensive immigration reform, passing strong bipartisan legislation. Unfortunately, the Republican House leadership has indicated only occasional interest, and even then only in a piecemeal approach. This is shortsighted and will continue to keep our economy and our neighbors in a place of limbo. That’s why we need to use the Senate bill’s momentum and work now on passing comprehensive immigration reform this year. California can’t wait much longer and neither can our country or our economy. It is critical that we don’t let this opportunity slip away to fix a broken system that hurts our agriculture economy and thousands of Central Coast families.
Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, represents California’s 24th Congressional District.