Town hall to address immigration reform efforts

Event at UT to cover workers’ impact, rights

4/10/2013
BY FEDERICO MARTINEZ
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Velasquez
Velasquez

Even as the Senate inches toward completing a comprehensive immigration reform package, illegal-immigrant advocates are furious that the proposal fails to adopt policies that would prevent agricultural employers from taking advantage of or abusing farm workers.

“People keep saying, ‘Well, let’s take care of these other things first, and then we’ll address worker rights later,’ ” said Baldemar Velasquez, president of Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee. “But we never get to later.

"We had the same conversation back in 1986, and these workers still have no rights,” he said.

The treatment of farm workers is only one issue that will discussed during an Immigration Reform Town Hall event at 6 p.m. today at University of Toledo’s Driscoll Center, 2801 Bancroft St.

The event is free and open to the public. It will be streamed live at http://video.utoledo.edu.

Other topics that will be addressed include the economic impact immigrants have on communities, ending exploitation of low-wage workers, and halting deportations of noncriminal immigrants. The event is hosted by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

“The goal is to try and bring clarity to often very confusing issues,” Mr. Velasquez said. “Immigration reform is on the horizon. It’s on a fast track to Congress.”

A bipartisan group of eight senators has spent several months working on a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

The senators are still debating a program that would offer agricultural workers an expedited path to obtaining a green card, which could take as little as three years, said Mark Heller, managing attorney for the Toledo-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality’s Migrant Farm Worker and Immigration Program.

The town hall will feature a variety of immigration experts, including Juliana Kerr, director of studies special initiatives for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who will share results of a recent study that evaluated the economic impact of immigrants.

Other guest speakers will include Veronica Dahlberg, executive director of HOLA, a grass-roots organization based in northeast Ohio that focuses on Latino outreach, advocacy, and community organizing, and Tim Burga, president of Ohio AFL-CIO.

The town-hall meeting is sponsored by FLOC, The Blade, AFL-CIO, and Citizenship Now.

Advocates at the town-hall event are expected to call for a temporary halt of deportations of noncriminal immigrants — pending the outcome of the reform.

According to a 2012 congressional report, about 50,000 illegal-immigrant families had been torn apart in the first six months of 2011, Mr. Velasquez said.

“Does it make sense to continue to deport non-law-breaking immigrants while we work on immigration reform?” Mr. Velasquez said. “Why do you want to continue to break up families?”

That issue hasn’t been broached by senators working on the reform proposal.

One contentious issue senators are debating is the number of workers who will be allowed to enter the country and what their wages should be, Mr. Heller said.

The average farm worker earns $6.76 to $8.05 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey. According to the survey, farm worker wages have declined by more than 20 percent in the last 20 years, accounting for inflation.

Mr. Velasquez is in Washington this week to meet with senators and encourage them to include in their reform proposal new laws that would offer better protection for farm workers.

Even less protected are H2A workers, which many nursery owners utilize, Mr. Heller said. The program allows employers to bring foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs. In order to do this, they must demonstrate there aren’t sufficient workers in the United States who are qualified to do the temporary work.

Agricultural employers want to increase the number of foreign workers under the program. Farm worker advocates say those jobs should go to people living in the United States.

Mr. Heller said American workers do apply for these jobs but are often passed over for foreign workers.

“They apply for jobs but don’t get them because growers want more control over their employees,” Mr. Heller said. “You have to work like a maniac out there.”

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.