California lawmakers have proposed a program that would grant work permits to undocumented immigrant farmworkers and their families, the Los Angeles Times reported. The legislation passed through the Assembly in June and is currently pending in the Senate.

The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Luis Alejo and backed by California farmworkers, would create a group that would seek authority for the permits from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice. The program would give permits to farmworkers already living in the state without authorization.

The workers, their spouses and children under 18 or enrolled at an accredited institution would be spared from deportation. The workers would need to be at least 18 to qualify. They would be required to pay a fee toward administrative costs. Felons would not qualify.

A similar program was proposed three years ago but did not pass, and was heavily opposed by immigrant rights groups and the state’s labor unions who wanted a national solution to immigration. But California farmers now say they are tired of waiting on the federal government to act on the immigration issue, and attribute a shortage of agricultural workers in California. They claim federal guest worker programs are too complicated and slow.

"The federal government, particularly members of Congress, are reluctant to allow individual states to conjure up 50 different immigration plans, but if they are unable to create a solution, then don't stop us from doing it," said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, as the Times reported.  

The proposed program would allow laborers and their immediate family members to remain in California without the risk of deportation. In order to be eligible for the program, workers would have to be at least 18, have performed a minimum of amount of agricultural work in the state and pay a fee to cover administrative costs. People who have committed felonies or have three misdemeanor convictions would not be eligible.

"We have a large population of people who came here to work, not to be any kind of a security threat to anybody," said Bryan Little, director of employment policy at the California Farm Bureau Association, as the Times reported. "And they came to work in an industry that needs them badly.”


461668943 California farmworkers are backing a bill that would allow them to work and live in the U.S. illegally. Photo: Getty Images

People who oppose the bill point out that immigration policy is set by Congress and that labor needs are already being met with existing policies.  

"There are other visa programs available for them, like H-2A," said Joe Guzzardi, national media director of Californians for Population Stabilization, as the Times reported. "I know the agricultural industry says it's cumbersome and impossible to work with, but I could say it's cumbersome to file my federal income tax returns. ... You are talking about big corporations that are saying it's just too cumbersome."

In 2011, a similar work authorization program was passed in Utah but has not been implemented yet. Utah lawmakers might repeal the legislation if it does not receive a federal waiver soon.

Hired farmworkers unauthorized to work in the U.S. increased by 15 percent from 1989 to 1991 and almost 55 percent from 1999 to 2001, say data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. The percentage of authorized workers nationwide has increased from 21 percent to about 33 percent since 2001.