Of the 2.5 million agricultural employees in the United States, it is estimated that at least 60 percent are working without authorized status. As a result, these workers receive lower wages and work in poorer conditions than authorized workers. Their incomes are usually less than $13,000 a year. Adequate housing is difficult to find and unauthorized workers do not receive insurance or other fringe benefits. These workers also can be exposed to dangerous working conditions such as pesticides. Many unauthorized workers are hesitant to challenge unfair treatment or report illegal conduct because they face the real threat of deportation.Background
AgJOBS (The Agricultural Job Opportunties, Benefits and Security Act) is a congressional bill that features an earned legalization program for undocumented immigrant workers and a series of provisions that improve immigrant workers’ rights. Originally, AgJOBS was written in 2000 as a compromise between major agricultural employers and the United Farm Workers who both wished to see the agricultural industry reformed. AgJOBS would: (1) create an earned adjustment program allowing undocumented farm workers to gain temporary immigration status and the possibility of becoming permanent residents through continued agricultural employment; and (2) make changes to the existing H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program.
First, the earned adjustment program would feature a two-step process allowing undocumented workers to gain legal permanent residency. The first step would be to apply for a “blue card” signifying temporary resident status. A worker would be eligible for a blue card after approximately five months of agricultural employment, provided that he has not committed a felony or violent misdemeanor, and that he pay fines and fees. The second step would be to earn a “green card” authorizing legal permanent resident status. A worker would be eligible for a green card if he/she works for approximately five months each year for five consecutive years, pays income taxes on work performed, and pays fines and fees.
Second, the H-2A program would be altered to: (1) reduce paperwork for employers; (2) mandate that employers provide either housing or housing allowances; (3) require employers to pay a fair wage; (4) allow workers to file federal lawsuits to enforce their rights; and (5) provide certain workers the option of applying for legal permanent residency after three consecutive years of work.
In 2006, the Senate passed AgJOBS as part of a comprehensive immigration bill; however, AgJOBS was not enacted into law. On January 10, 2007, Senators Kennedy (D-MA), Feinstein (D-CA), and Craig (R-ID) introduced AgJOBS in the Senate (S. 340) while Reps. Canon (R-UT) and Berman (D-CA) introduced AgJOBS in the House (H.R. 371). Although the sponsors of AgJOBS hoped to spur committee action on their bill in 2008, it appears that they do not have the necessary political momentum to do so at the current time.Catholic Social Teaching
In Strangers No Longer, the U.S. Catholic Bishops stated: “All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive.” 1
The U.S. Catholic Bishops also called on the United States and Mexico to, “make a special effort to provide legal avenues for Mexican workers to obtain in the United States jobs that provide a living wage and appropriate benefits and labor protections.”USCCB Position
The U.S. Catholic Bishops support both permanent and, with appropriate protections, temporary visa programs for laborers. However, any such system must adequately protect the rights of workers. Visa costs must be affordable and wages should be sufficient to support a family in dignity. The program ought to provide for family unity and reunification and allow for worker mobility both within the United States and in making return trips to their home country. Labor-market tests should be employed to ensure that U.S. workers are protected. A segment of work visas should be designed to allow laborers to enter the country as legal permanent residents. In allocating such visas, two factors that should be considered are family ties and work history.
In addition, the United States and Mexico should develop a program that permits workers to accrue benefits for work performed during participation in the program. Finally, the United States should sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which outlines principles for protecting the labor and human rights of migrant workers.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops also believe that the creation of employment opportunities in Mexico would help reduce poverty and would thus mitigate the incentive for many migrants to look for employment in the United States. Mexico must implement economic policies that encourage the growth of their relatively stagnant economy. In particular, targeted projects are necessary in Mexican municipalities where the rates of emigration are the highest.
The Bishops credit AgJOBS for upholding several of these principles and wish to see such principles enacted as part of comprehensive immigration reform.
1 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Migration, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States,” no. 34 (January 2003).