Conference Examines Farmworker Rights, Immigration Legislation

May 5, 2005
Tim Freilich, above, explained state legislation that may affect immigrants. The conference also included panels on farmworker law, identification requirements, pesticide policy, farmworker health, and conducting effective outreach.

Virginia's foreign-born population increased almost 83 percent from 1990 to 2000, from about 311,000 to 570,000, a group whose needs legal aid and community services organizations are struggling to meet. Attorneys, advocates, and community officials gathered to discuss key issues facing the immigrant and farmworker community at a conference co-sponsored by the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and the Public Service Center May 4 at the Law School.

"Pretty much everybody agrees that the current [immigration] system is not working," said Tim Freilich, managing attorney for the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers, who spoke about Virginia legislation affecting immigrants.

Nationally, the foreign-born population has increased 57 percent to 31.8 million from 19.8 million from 1990 to 2000. Eight percent of Virginia's population is foreign-born, and of those about 41 percent are from Asia and a third are from Latin America. Nationally, Latin Americans lead the boom. Since the United States tightened its border with Mexico beginning in 1993, there have been 2,640 border-crossing-related deaths.

Freilich said an Urban Institute study shows that of the 9.3 million undocumented workers nationwide, six million are working, and 96 percent of male undocumented workers are in the labor force.

"I think you see a lot of bills that may not necessarily be in Virginia's interest being introduced" to deal with immigration issues, he said, surmising that state delegates may be frustrated with the failures of the federal system.

Freilich warned that of the bills that failed this year, "many of them will likely be introduced next year." Failed bills included a law to prohibit driver's licenses and learner's permits to people who cannot communicate in English, even for residents seeking to renew their license. Freilich said he was "stunned" when the bill was voted out of the House Transportation Committee, although it later failed. He noted that 25 percent of Virginia's foreign-born population report speaking English not well or not at all.

Another failed bill would have sent a memo to Congress requesting English be made the official language of the United States, and a criminal procedure bill would have made it easier for police to arrest a suspected illegal alien by eliminating the requirement that the officer confirm, prior to the arrest, whether the alien had previously been deported or left the United States after being convicted for a felony. A bill prohibiting illegal aliens from being admitted to public institutions of higher education also failed, although another law requiring illegal aliens to pay out-of-state tuition passed.

Of the laws that were enacted, a bill requiring proof of legal presence for some state and local public benefits will affect U.S. citizens more than undocumented aliens, since aliens are not eligible for Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families anyway. The bill also does not cut off access to emergency medical services and does not apply to those under age 19.

Other laws that may help the immigrant community include a bill making employers subject to a felony charge if they fail to pay wages that accumulate to more than $10,000, while another mandated a Class 6 felony if employers pay wages with a bad check of $200 or more.

Shelley Davis

On the national legislative stage, farmworkers' and growers' organizations have negotiated a historic compromise that would provide a path toward what undocumented workers want most-legal presence, said Shelley Davis, co-executive director of Farmworker Justice Fund, Inc.

The bipartisan AgJobs bill is an attempt to reform the H2A agricultural visa, which provides minimum requirements for wages, housing, and working conditions-protections which growers view as burdensome and have in the past tried to eliminate.

The AgJobs bill was recently introduced as an amendment to the Iraqi/Afghanistan appropriations bill, said Davis, joking that it's a "time-honored tradition" to get your bill passed by attaching it to a bill that will pass.

They needed 60 votes to add the amendment, but received only 53. "This particular opportunity was not the last," she said.

AgJobs offers a plan of "earned legalization," in which farmworkers who work at least 100 days in agriculture over 18 months are granted temporary permanent residence. If over 3 to 6 years they work another 300 days in agriculture, following a formula of a certain number of hours per year, they will be granted a green card, along with their immediate family.

Davis said President Bush's use of the term "legalization" in his proposal (for which there is no legislation yet) varies from AgJobs. Bush's plan would not allow workers to bring in spouses or children, she said, and does not lead toward permanent status.

"We mean the road to permanent legal residence, but that is not the way President Bush is using the term," she said.

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