An estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants are part of California's labor force. Like other undocumented immigrants across the country, these California residents are forced to live and work in the shadows -- all the while providing labor for jobs that many say few Americans would take.
Currently, the state legislature is considering a bill that would grant legal status in the form of work permits for the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants working in the agriculture and food service industries.
Introduced in January by Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella), the bill would grant work permits to undocumented immigrants for a fee. Additionally, members of the immediate family could also be granted a legal permit to reside in California.
"We believe we can become the model," said Assemblymember Perez to the Silicon Valley Mercury News. Perez also clarified to the Mercury News that the bill is not a guest worker program. Instead, it would only apply to people who have already been living and working in California -- in effect, officially recognizing the tens of thousands of people who already make up the backbone of agriculture and service jobs.
"We're not importing folks from Latin America or Mexico," Perez said. "We're talking about workers who have been here now for a period of years, who have raised their families here already."
Besides the long, slow climb to debate and approval (the bill only recently passed the Assembly's Labor and Employment committee) the bill has two other obstacles. For one, the federal government would have to sign off on the work permit program if it became law. Secondly, a state report would have to certify that there aren't enough legal residents to fill all the agriculture and food service jobs in California.
But since California's currently at an 11 percent unemployment rate (nationwide, this figure is eight percent), critics of the bill say it doesn't make any sense to legalize the labor of undocumented immigrants.
"It makes very little sense for the Legislature to be passing laws allowing illegal aliens to take jobs in California when there’s so many Californians who are out of work right now," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for Immigration Reform to CBS2. "It just defies any sort of logic that they would be doing things to harm unemployed Californians at this time."
Last year, Georgia and Alabama have enacted laws that severely restrict the lives of undocumented immigrants in their states, leading to an exodus of undocumented laborers and the constriction of agriculture businesses.
As a result, farmers in both states will be planting less produce this year than in years past, reports the Associated Press. Growers simply don't want a repeat of last year, when the new state laws first went into effect and crops rotted in the fields.
John Aplin, a fourth-generation farmer, told the Associated Press that in the year since the law has passed, he hasn't been able to find enough Alabama natives who could endure the labor-intensive farmwork.
"They'll work a morning and come up at lunchtime and say, 'I'm done,'" said Aplin.
UPDATE: The California work permit bill faces many challenges, not least of which is the federal approval it needs to go forward. Is this proposed legislation simply symbolic? Not so, says Assemblymember Perez.
"Certainly I can’t predict how the state and federal authorities are going to respond to this proposal," said the assemblymember in an email to HuffPost. "Is it symbolic? No. Yet, I do think it spurs a worthwhile discussion to have, and I’d like to believe this bill will help revitalize and reinvigorate the national discourse, particularly in an election year."
President Barack Obama has pledged to reform immigration policy in the first year of his second term. In an April interview with Univision, President Obama said, "This is something I care deeply about ... it's personal to me."
The issue is personal for Assemblymember Perez as well. As the son of immigrant farmworkers and the representative of a border region, Perez said to HuffPost that his bill is a "responsible and compassionate approach" for thousands of California families affected by immigration policy.
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. The law was widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It required state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there was "reasonable suspicion" that the individual was undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believed was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010, immediately generating a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. In July 2010 and February 2012, federal judges blocked different provisions of SB 1070, setting the stage for the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/sb1070-ruling-supreme-court_n_1614119.html" target="_hplink">the Supreme Court decision of June 25, 2012</a> which struck down multiple provisions but upheld the controversial "papers please" provision, a centerpiece of the law which critics say will lead to racial profiling
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>