Farm workers march for immigration reform

Demonstrators protest the deportation of undocumented immigrants on July 24, 2013 in New York City.

Congress is taking a break this month, but immigration activists aren’t taking time off. Rallies are being staged around the country this month to try to influence Republican leaders in the House of Representatives to suport immigration reform.

Today, thousands of farm workers from across California gathered in Bakersfield. They chanted in Spanish as they marched to the office of Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the majority whip in the House.

Farming is big business around Bakersfield. Agriculture brought in around $6 billion in revenues to Kern county last year. Many, if not most, of the crops are picked by Latino immigrants.

Fifty-year old Bernardino Garcia has been working in the fields around Bakersfield for 15 years. He sacrificed a day’s pay -- around $60 -- to attend the rally.

“I will lose money, but I will be much better off with the change that the immigration reform will bring about for me and my family,” says Garcia.

Many lawmakers say that if you want to come to America, you should follow the rules. So legislation has repeatedly stalled in Congress.

That’s frustrating for Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers.

“We’re tired of waiting. We’ve been waiting now for years, fighting this fight for over a decade now. And it’s time that Congress takes action,” says Rodriguez.

Juana Carbajal used to work in the fields. Her relatives still do.

“Life out there in the fields is very difficult. Why? Because the mistreatment that happens in the fields,” says Carbajal.

She says workers may not get paid. Or they may not have access to shade on days where the temperature is above 100 degrees.

“If you’re undocumented and you want to address what’s happening, they just call you and say, ‘You know what? We don’t need you to work tomorrow.’ And that’s it,” says Carbajal.

On the other side of the industry, the employers -- the farmers -- also want to see immigration reform. Or, at least, some form of it.

I visited a grove of almond trees. This is harvest time, so machines shake the nuts off the trees. The farm belongs to Greg Wegis. He’s with the Kern County Farm Bureau and a fifth generation farmer.

“Immigration reform is vital. We want a supply of labor that is legal,” says Wegis.

He says tighter immigration enforcement has made it harder to find workers. Still, he hopes House Republicans keep negotiating.

“Hopefully, the House can craft and negotiate a bill that is a little more tailored to agricultural needs,” says Wegis.

Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy was unavailable for an interview. But in a written statement, McCarthy says, “While I have met with many groups across the spectrum of the immigration reform debate, in the end, I value the input of my constituents in the 23rd Congressional District most. I have long said that our immigration system is broken, but rather than take up the Senate bill, the House will move in a step by step approach that first secures the border.”

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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