A path to legalization and stronger rights Stuck in the Senate, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would pave a path to legalization for field workers, strengthen the H-2A visa program


Article and photos by Estrella Zarate-Pacheco

A guest worker visa program widely used for agriculture in Salinas Valley that has been haunted by claims of abuse will see reforms with legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which was approved last year by the U.S. House of Representatives and remains stuck in the Senate, would reform the H-2A visa program, which is strongly relied upon by growers in the Salinas Valley.

Employers in Monterey County provide employment for about 7,500, or roughly 25 percent of all H-2A visa holders who enter California to perform agricultural work, said Christopher Valadez, president and chief executive officer of the Grower Shipper Association.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act was introduced with bipartisan support in March 2021 by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat who represents California’s 19th Congressional District and said the bill was crafted with input from the United Farm Workers and Western Growers.

The main purpose of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is to stabilize the country’s ag labor force by providing a path to legalization to undocumented people who have worked in agriculture for at least 180 days over the last two years. As part of the bill, the H-2A visa program would be reformed to give employers more flexibility but also to provide more protections to workers.

The changes contained in the bill could be of benefit to workers like José López, a 28-year-old man from Acambaro, Guanajuato, who asked his real name not be used for fear of reprisal from his employer. López first arrived in the U.S. under the H-2A visa in 2011; his job under the visa was in Arcadia, Fla., to harvest oranges. Eventually, he decided to seek work in the Salinas Valley because he heard he would earn better wages. Here in the Salinas Valley, López has been provided housing and transportation, but no food. He said he and his crew are not getting work breaks required under federal law.

Jacinto Paredes, a 40-year-old man from Michoacan, has been working under the H-2A visa in agriculture since 2009, and is currently with a Salinas-based packing company. He also asked his real name not be used, and said he has not received the breaks he needs, that his working hours have not been recorded accurately, and that he is not being provided with food. He says he has been threatened by his supervisors who tell him he won’t be able to return to work next season if he doesn’t abide by the rules.

He said he doesn’t speak up because, he says, “As a worker, we feel afraid of expressing ourselves freely because there have been retaliations taken against people who speak up.”

Activists say they believe there are many others in the Salinas Valley with similar stories.

Lauro Barajas, vice president of the United Farm Workers in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, said “The company has all the power over the worker” and “if workers complain and don’t keep up good speed with other workers, they won’t come the following year, they cannot speak up for themselves. They need to have the same speed as other workers.”

“Employees working under the H-2A visa program need to be provided food, transportation and housing,” said Barajas. In some cases, employees spend thousands of dollars in Mexico to gain eligibility for the visas.

It’s not common to see these men advocating for their rights. “The workers are very scared that if they reach out to attorneys that they will get fired and sent back home,” said Jeraline Singh Edwards, an immigration attorney in Aptos. “Many of the people we talk to say that they are scared to bring in lawyers to fight for their rights because they rather have the 10 or 20 hours than no hours at all. Sometimes these employers do not pay them for the work they’ve done or they will have them work more than full time,” he said, and not pay overtime.

Rep. Lofgren said there’s an important element in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that will bring protections to H-2A visa holders. Currently, they are not covered under the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, something that would change under the proposed legislation.

The Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act establishes protections such as minimum standards for housing, a requirement that employers disclose to employees, in writing if requested, how much they should expect to be paid and the working conditions in which they will be expected to work. Under the act, migrant workers have the right to file a complaint or a lawsuit against the employer.

“There has been little litigation under the Migrant Protection Act. I think it’s the existence of legal recourse that tends by itself to curb illegal misconduct on the part of employers,” Lofgren said. “There is quite a large number of H-2A workers in the Salinas Valley. I hope they are not being abused, but if there is any misconduct, that needs to be reported.”

Claudia Meléndez Salinas contributed to this report.

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