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Arturo S. Rodríguez Headshot

Inaugural Is a Timely Moment to Reflect on President Obama and Immigration Reform

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President Obama visited La Paz, the farm worker movement's 187-acre Tehachapi Mountain headquarters at Keene, Calif., last Oct. 8 to dedicate a portion of the grounds where Cesar Chavez lived and worked his last quarter century as the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument. Before addressing 7,000 people at this 398th unit of the National Park Service, administered in partnership with the Cesar Chavez Foundation, the President and a small group of us toured the Visitor Center, including Cesar's carefully preserved office and library. Then, with Helen Chavez, Cesar's widow, on his arm, Mr. Obama approached the adjacent Memorial Garden hosting the farm labor and civil rights leader's gravesite. The President placed a single red rose before the simple wooden cross and paused briefly in prayer.

Shy and humble, Helen Chavez, now 85 and in frail health, carefully avoided the limelight all the years her husband was a public figure. She almost never spoke in public and was never interviewed by reporters. Cesar respected her privacy.

But as Helen and the President walked away from the gravesite arm in arm on that bright and sunny fall day, she said, "Mr. President, will you promise me you will do something about immigration reform?"

"Mrs. Chavez, I will make it a top priority," he responded. "I promise."

When he was a U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama was a coauthor of the AgJobs bill. Jointly negotiated by the United Farm Workers and national grower groups, AgJobs would let undocumented farm workers in this country now who pass criminal background checks earn the permanent legal right to stay by continuing to work in agriculture. It would also make it easier for growers to import temporary foreign guest workers under the existing H-2A program while preserving its labor protections if there are not enough domestic workers to harvest the crops.

As President, Mr. Obama has consistently supported AgJobs and comprehensive immigration reform. When Congress failed to act, he took executive action allowing the children of undocumented immigrants, called Dreamers, to remain in this country and he took some steps towards family unification. We expect President Obama will soon clearly lay out an agenda on immigration reform.

The biggest obstacle to reform is the Republican-controlled House. But even there, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee, is a former cosponsor of the AgJobs measure. What has changed? When the UFW and the growers first fashioned the compromise AgJobs bill in 2000, there were 6 million Latinos who voted. Last November there were nearly 13 million.

We look forward to the realization of citizenship for all 11 million undocumented people in America as part of the Alliance for Citizenship, the coalition to which the UFW belongs. There are some hopeful signs. Many thoughtful Republicans, reflecting on last year's election returns in which GOP candidates received an ever-shrinking minority of Latino votes, are embracing the principle of immigration reform, including reform benefiting farm workers.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio told the Wall Street Journal, "The goal is to give American agriculture a reliable work force and to give protection to these workers as well."

Last May, President Obama affirmed the "need to provide our farms a legal way to hire workers that they rely on, and a path for those workers to earn legal status."

Unfortunately, even as the political landscape is fundamentally shifting, agricultural employers have recently backtracked from their support for the compromise AgJobs proposal. Now they solely seek a greatly expanded guest worker program with few, if any, of the protections for imported foreign field laborers that Sen. Rubio endorsed. The agricultural industry plan also wouldn't safeguard the rights of domestic workers whose jobs could be handed over to the more compliant and easy-to-exploit guest workers. Unlike AgJobs, the growers' guest worker plan does not let undocumented farm workers presently in this country earn legal status and a path to citizenship.

The UFW looks forward to relief for the nation's current farm labor work force. We want to have serious discussions about the future of the work force upon which American agriculture and American consumers depend. But let's be honest about the terms we use. When growers or business interests use the term guest worker, it's hard to take them seriously.

Most Americans who aren't wealthy don't ask "guests" into their homes to do work on an almost permanent basis. Likewise, let's be honest about the term "temporary" worker. If temporary workers are working here most of the year, year after year, shouldn't they have the right to apply for permanent legal status as well? Sen. Rubio is correct when he notes that Europe tried to use these so-called guest or temporary workers, and it hasn't worked. The U.S. has our own ugly history with the infamous 1942-1964 bracero and current H-2A guest worker programs that produced abuse and exploitation of farm workers from both sides of the border.

What America needs now is not a new guest worker program but genuine immigration reform, whether in the form of the AgJobs bill or comprehensive immigration reform. Then President Obama will be able to keep his promise to Helen Chavez.

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Arturo S. Rodriguez succeeded Cesar Chavez as president of the United Farm Workers of America and is in Washington, D.C. attending the inaugural and pushing for immigration reform. He works and lives in Keene, Calif.