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After a tumultuous and vulnerable year for agricultural workers, it’s time undocumented farmworkers across the country are provided an attainable path to legal residency.

Nearly half of the nation’s farmworkers are undocumented, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We rely on their work for the food we eat and the milk we drink, including from Idaho farms and dairies. Yet they and their families must live with fear and uncertainty, knowing they could be deported at any time.

We urge the U.S. Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed for a second time in March. The bill, supported by 34 agriculture organizations in Idaho and hundreds more across the country, would give undocumented agriculture workers, their spouses and children a pathway to gain legal status. There are requirements for length of time worked in the industry and a clean criminal background. 

The bill would also improve the H-2A visa program, which allows farms and dairies to fill gaps in their workforce by hiring foreign workers. Agricultural employers in Idaho have discussed with the Idaho Press their challenges in hiring enough workers and the lack of interest from the local labor force. The revisions in the bill would help them by increasing the number of available visas and green cards, allowing dairies and other year-round producers to bring in workers on three-year visas, and boosting funding for farmworker housing. It would also provide a path to citizenship for longtime H-2A workers.

Starting the citizenship process typically requires several years of legal residency. Even if someone who is undocumented has been here for 15 years working at an Idaho dairy, none of those years count — but they should. We’re happy to see that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would change that policy. Allowing hard workers that prop up our economy to become citizens benefits us all.

Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho has helped shape this legislation because of what he’s heard from constituents. We applaud him for listening and taking action.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, will introduce the bill in the Senate but doesn't support it in its current form. He has said he supports giving dairy farmers access to the H-2A program but won't support amnesty for those who crossed the border illegally or overstayed a visa. 

Simpson has pushed back against the notion that the bill offers amnesty. 

“Let me tell you what this bill does,” he told Congress when the bill passed in 2019. “It legalizes the current workforce, as long as you get right with the law and have a clean criminal record” and can demonstrate specified work experience. “If you want to access further legal status, you work four to eight years in agriculture, then pay a fine and get in line while you continue to work in agriculture.”

Agricultural workers keep food production going year-round. People don’t just stop needing to eat. And these are the same folks who kept factories humming through the pandemic; there was no “working from home in sweatpants on the couch” phase for them. Our farm workers continued clocking long hours, harvesting crops and processing meat — often to their detriment, as we saw a number of early outbreaks at meat processing plants.

These essential workers are now hesitant to start the COVID-19 vaccination process, for fear of deportation. This highlights the constant, ebbing stress in the lives of the undocumented members of our community. They tread carefully through society trying to make ends meet, never knowing the thing that will expose them. Imagine the stress of always looking over your shoulder and continuing to contribute positively to the economy anyway.

The best way to support and appreciate farmworkers is to allow them to live full lives with legal residency. It’s long overdue, but we’re hopeful to see movement toward a real change.

Editorials are based on the majority opinion of the Idaho Press editorial board, comprised of community members Rod Gramer, Rosie Delgadillo Reilly, Tracy Watt and Pat Klocke, and Idaho Press President and Publisher Matt Davison. Idaho Press managing editor Holly Beech and city editor Tess Fox are non-voting members. Views expressed in the editorial do not necessarily represent unanimous agreement among all board members.

Watt was absent.

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