Festering lettuce: Labor shortage in Salinas and Senator Feinstein’s legislation

Lettuce heads fester in the dark rows of fields surrounding Salinas. When the Pacific air comes in the early afternoon – just before the cool fog sweeps through the agricultural Salinas Valley, a faint odor cuts through the fresh ocean breeze. It’s an odor that sticks with you, usually at the end of the season when farmworkers astutely select the best greens to serve the world, discarding ugly or wilted lettuce which helps replenish the soil.

This is the start of lettuce season in the world’s most productive valley. Agriculture comprises more than $8.1 billion of the local economy. In the county, nearly 1 in 4 residents rely on incomes related to agriculture. The numbers for Salinas, the agricultural hub of the county, are far higher. The valley provides the majority of leaf lettuce, celery, and head lettuce for the nation, with significant output of broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, and strawberries.

Along the circumventing roads separating Salinas neighborhoods from the fields, signs in Spanish and even English plead for workers to harvest growers’ wealth. Even since the time of John Steinbeck, when growers used the work of men, women, and children from (or descending from) Mexico, Japan, China, the Philippines, the Dust Bowl, and again Mexico, Salinas has relied on cheap, migrant labor. Today’s workforce is comprised of undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans, who are as integral as the rich soil and daily waterings. But this seems to have hit a crisis not just in the Trump era, but also under Obama.

Recent border crossing statistics show just how dire the situation is for Salinas’s workforce. Relying on undocumented labor to pick crops, border apprehensions have plummeted significantly, seen from people detained by the Border Patrol. Coupled with the rising detention numbers by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – especially targeting people with no criminal record – people have not headed to the fields in numbers they once did.

In the last few years, growers across the country have had to rely on H-2A visas, guest worker legal status for foreign nationals in agricultural sectors. The numbers of visa recipients in turn have increased from 65,345 in 2012 to 134,368 in 2016.

Still, H-2As and their accompanying family H-4 visas have enjoyed a long history of human rights abuses, including substandard living and labor conditions, not to mention low wages. H-4s, for spouses and unmarried family members under age 21, also face exploitation with domestic abuse, infrequently reporting crime, and reliance on H-2As’ work and wages for survival.

These visas have not been enough to supplement the traditionally steady undocumented workers, though. In order to combat this shortage, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the Agricultural Worker Program Act in early May. The bill would create a Blue Card for farmworkers to eventually receive a pathway to naturalization if they complete work requirements outlined by the federal government.

Despite hailing from the urban San Francisco political machine an hour and a half away from agriculture in Salinas (without traffic), Senator Feinstein introduced similar legislation under the 2013 Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. Her bill eventually got stuck in the Judiciary Committee, but it attempted to help the labor shortage that existed even then.

Co-sponsored by fellow California Senator Kamala Harris, the 2017 bill bases citizenship on hours worked, taking approximately three to five years. It aims to provide relief for farmworking communities vulnerable to Trump’s hardline immigration policies, in addition to regulating some labor standards in the fields and the current undocumented population.

The farmworker bill has also enjoyed support from farmworker and Latinx community advocacy groups, as well as the California Farm Bureau. As described in a May 3 press release, “Agriculture is a $54 billion industry in California, and U.C. Davis estimates that up to 70 percent of California farmworkers—approximately 560,000 people—are undocumented. Under the Justice Department’s new immigration enforcement guidelines, they are all priorities for deportation.”

But like the former bill, the 2017 legislation is short on language for labor, health, and housing conditions, issues that have plagued immigrant, farmworking communities. For instance, the bill does not extend federal public benefits or tax assistance during a worker’s mandated labor tenure. And for healthcare, blue card recipients are subject to the same rules for undocumented people under the Affordable Care Act, meaning they would not receive cost reductions.

It’s unclear if this type of immigration reform would even pass given the current xenophobic and politically stagnant environment in Washington. Nevertheless, this bill still seeks to build on a depleted H-2A labor supply and spur economies like in Salinas.

Salinas is about an hour away from the San Francisco Bay Area without traffic. Whether you take Highway 17 from the Bay and go down the 1, or just go down 101 straight to Salinas, California politicians can drive and see empty fields intended to feed the country and the world. The afternoon breeze brings the underlying stench affecting the nation.

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