This week, something new is sprouting in the Northwest’s fields and fruit orchards: optimism about immigration reform.
A bipartisan group of US senators unveiled a proposed framework for legislation on Monday. It specifically addresses the country’s reliance on undocumented farm workers and the need to legalize this workforce.
"We’re really encouraged to take the step,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington Farm Labor Association. The organization is the largest provider of foreign workers for Washington agriculture. Last year it brought more than 4,000 seasonal workers to the state to fill a labor shortage.
Fazio is almost giddy to see momentum in Congress around immigration -- in particular, overtures toward a new guest-worker program for agriculture. He says that could be transformative for Washington growers.
“We’ve got land, we’ve got capital, we’ve got markets to sell our crops. It’s a big export engine,” Fazio said. “Right now the only thing holding us back is we don’t have enough workers.”
Fazio describes the government’s current guest worker program as “monumentally complex." So rather than tackle the red tape, many growers rely on undocumented immigrants to harvest Washington apples, cherries, asparagus and other produce.
Fazio says about 75 percent of Washington’s farm workers are in the country illegally. The Senate plan released this week would give agricultural workers a path to citizenship.
In Congress, discussions about comprehensive immigration reform will start in the Judiciary Committee of each chamber. In the House, that committee includes newly minted US Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington. She anticipates a lot of negotiation about granting citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants.
“I think it’s important that we do have an earned path to citizenship and that that’s called out,” DelBene said. “But I think exactly how that’s going to work is something that we need to work on in the House, together with the Senate. So I think it’s going to be a work in progress, but I think it’s a good start.”
On the question of increased border enforcement, DelBene said she supports a strong border but the policies must also allow commerce to flow back and forth.
DelBene reads it as an encouraging sign that her colleagues on both sides of the aisle are coming together quickly on this hot-button issue. The House Judiciary Committee is set to hold its first immigration hearing on Tuesday.