SACRAMENTO -- In order to get California's economy back on its feet, Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez is proposing a bill that if passed, would help address what to do with a largely undocumented work force in both the agriculture and service sector industries.
The California Agricultural Jobs and Industry Stabilization Act (AB1544) was introduced on the Assembly floor in January with bi-partisan support but the bill was pulled back last week after much debate on the specifics of the bill.
"I just want to make it very clear that this bill is not amnesty, its not a guest-worker program or a resident-worker program and its certainly not another Bracero program," said Pérez in a telephone interview last week.
"This bill is intended to address the immigration issue due to the inaction of the federal government. This bill is designed to let undocumented farm and service-sector workers who have been already working in these two industries for an extended period of time have a way of lawfully staying in California. But, they will also have to clear a criminal background check, pay a fee for the work permit and show a clear and genuine effort to learn the English language," he said.
The bill would not give undocumented immigrants, who recently entered the country and who are working in either industries, a work permit. The bill would, however, require the Employment Development Department to administer a program that would certify that there are not enough legal residents in California to fill any open agricultural and service industry jobs in the state. Once the department makes that certification, the bill would authorize EDD to issue permits to undocumented immigrants who already work in those industries -- granted they meet the specified criteria Pérez outlined.
Most importantly, that piece of legislation would depend on the federal government's approval.
Since California is currently the 9th largest economy in the world generating an average of $37.5 billion in annual revenue in part due to the cash crop, livestock and agriculture industries in the state -- Pérez believes it is imperative California takes a first step in the immigration debate.
"I hope this bill becomes a model for other states to follow," Pérez said.
Last year, Pérez met with farm workers in his district who expressed concern about their legal status and growers who expressed a fear over an already diminishing labor force. When Pérez conducted an informal survey in his district, nearly 30 percent of the workers in both the agriculture and service sectors said they were undocumented, but he believes that number is a conservative one and by some estimates, it's closer to 50 percent. The fact that immigration reform has been on the back burner in the Obama administration, Pérez believes California's economy can no longer wait for a reform if it intends to continue playing an important role in the global economy.
"The stability of the economy is dependent on the stability of families and California has two of the largest industries that make it a competitive state. But, if we don't address the fact that the majority of these two industries rely and depend on an undocumented work force, we are endangering the economy of our state," Pérez said.
In April, the Assembly's Committee on Labor and Employment endorsed the bill with a 4-1 vote. Last week, the bill -- which was co-authored by Republican Assemblywoman Linda Halderman of Fresno -- headed to the Assembly appropriations committee. Yet Pérez said it will not be heard on the Assembly floor because the specifics of the bill have been the topic of debate between growers and the United Farm Workers.
Last weekend, other opposition groups such as the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), Sacramento chapter and its members held a forum at the State Capitol denouncing the piece of legislation and lobbied legislators for an entire week detailing their position and why they should not support the bill.
"This bill continues to put people as second class citizens. It gives the employer more power because this group of people will be tied to their employer in the agriculture or service industry. They are two of the worst-paid industries that have a long history of exploiting the worker. They will not be able to unionize or demand better wages or working conditions. This bill is not a path to legalization, just a patch to help solve the immigration problem," said community activist Al Rojas.
Among the 20 guests was LCLAA member and treasurer, Gabriel Torres who attended the forum to express his concerns.
"Of course agriculture is interested in having a secure labor force. Who else are they going to have doing the job? We have high unemployment in this state -- why not find people to fill those jobs here? Why not work on raising the salary of these vulnerable people and give them the opportunity to organize and demand just and fair wages?" Torres said.
What worries Rojas the most is the attitude, demeanor and stance some of the members of the Latino Legislative Caucus took when they tried to express their concerns over the bill.
"I firmly believe bills that have the potential to impact the immigrant community should be discussed and carefully considered with those people and all groups who have an interest in the bill. The Latino caucus was arrogant and their behavior hostile when we tried to express our views and opposition to this bill. Just because we are Latinos, Chicanos or Mexicanos does not mean we are going to side with them just because they are Latino. This is a bad bill," Rojas said.
But Pérez says his intentions are different. He introduced the bill to provide a "practical and reasonable solution" to the immigration issue.
"We have to be realistic when we look at the people that are picking our crops and cleaning our hotel rooms. These people are doing the jobs Americans are not doing. The United Farm Workers launched the 'Take Our Jobs' campaign a few years ago inviting Americans to spend a day laboring in the fields and we all know it didn't work out. We need people to have permits to continue working here and not be in fear of deportation -- or that of their families for that matter," Pérez said.
Last month, Assemblywoman Linda Halderman of Fresno took her name off of the bill after ongoing debates of the specifics of the bill.
"Unfortunately, due to pressures from outside stakeholders and subsequent amendments, AB 1544 is no longer the proper vehicle in which to address the critical issues facing California's agricultural community and the thousands of hard-working agricultural laborers and their families," said Halderman via an e-mail.
Still, Pérez says he will continue to push the bill forward hoping to get bi-partisan support and aims to address all of the issues from either side of the political aisle in order to pass the bill.
"We have been making and will continue to make many more amendments to this bill so that it gets the support it needs to pass. If I am able to get republicans and democrats on this bill, I do believe it would turn quite a bit of heads across the nation and congress if we are successful," Pérez.
In the coming weeks, Pérez will travel throughout the state and meet with various organizations, growers, farm workers and other stakeholders to hear their concerns with the end goal of creating a bill that addresses all of the issues stakeholders have taken a concern.
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