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Franklin - Local farm owners and community members met with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, on Thursday at Cushman Farms to discuss their immigration reform requests.
The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill on immigration reform in June, and the U.S. House of Representatives now has an immigration reform bill, H.R. 15, with bipartisan support, before it.
Congress must address immigration reform now, he said. "Time is the enemy in Washington right now," Courtney said. It is time to contact House Speaker John Boehner and tell him to call the bill to the floor of the House, he said.
The bill would provide a path, albeit one with hurdles and regulations, to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States. It would provide a quicker path for undocumented agricultural workers and undocumented youth.
Henry N. Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, said many employers are frustrated with the current H-2A Certification, which allows U.S. employers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers into the country to perform agricultural labor on a temporarily basis if there are no domestic workers.
Employers must follow certain rules. They must spend money advertising the jobs locally, provide foreign workers with a place to stay, and pay the foreign workers relatively high wages - for example, $14 an hour, local farmers said.
Employers don't want to break the law, but sometimes, it's easier to just accept a Social Security card with no questions rather than go through the H-2A program, Talmage said.
"I bet 60 percent of non-H-2A workers are 'documented' but illegal," he said.
If the House bill passes, it would allow undocumented agricultural workers to apply for a "blue card." After five years, they could use their "blue card" to apply for a green card, or permanent residency. Five years later, they could apply for citizenship.
With a blue card, workers would be allowed to stay in the United States and accept one seasonal job after another on whichever farms they would like to work. This would remove the frustration of having to send a well-trained worker home and train a new worker, Richard Holmberg, owner of Holmberg Orchards in Gales Ferry, said.
Farm work requires skill, local farmers said, and one untrained laborer can really damage a farm.
Steve Jarmoc, president of Jarmoc Tobacco in Enfield, said the bill also would help with the problem of having to advertise to American citizens. He said he has had Americans show up for work and then decide the work is "not dignified enough" or "just too difficult for them."
The bill also provides undocumented immigrants in general with a path to citizenship. For example, an undocumented immigrant could apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant status if they have been in the country since Dec. 31, 2011, have not been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors, pay their taxes and pass background checks, among other requirements. Once the person has had RPI status for at least 10 years, he or she could apply for a green card.
Three years after that, the immigrant could apply for citizenship.
Mother Mary Jude Lazarus, diocesan director of the Hispanic Ministry, said the bill is not "amnesty." There are many hurdles, penalty fees and requirements for undocumented immigrants to meet before they can qualify for provisional status, she said.
But it does provide a path to citizenship, she said.
This is a step forward because "legalization is not enough, legalizing residents but not making them citizens … makes you a second-rate citizen," she said.
The bill provides a relatively quick path for youth, who were brought to the country illegally by their parents, to become citizens. They could apply for RPI status and after five years could apply for a green card. They could apply for citizenship as soon as they received a green card.
"Anything that gives us light at the end of the tunnel is good," said Chris Soto, founding director of Higher Edge in New London, which helps low-income and first-generation students graduate from college.
Soto said one of his biggest concerns is how to help students access loans and grants.
"Five years, I think that is something we can get behind," Soto said.