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Immigration Debate Puts Farm Workers Union In Spotlight

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A new immigration bill is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate next week, calling for better border security and a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants in the United States without legal status.

One big hurdle toward that was cleared this week when the United Farm Workers reached a deal with growers that would address wages and caps the number of visas allowed for new workers.

The deal underscored the growing political clout of Latinos in the United States and what that means for the United Farm Workers union.

Its members seemed to be all over Washington this week. With their deep red T-shirts emblazoned with the union's stylized eagle logo, they were very visible at the big immigration rights rally outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Earlier that same day, they made some noise on the inside — at the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, where some members of Congress hosted a reception. Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., himself the son of farm workers, welcomed them.

"Some of the hardest workers in the world are people who pick our fruits and vegetables that too many of us take for granted every single day," he said.

The feeling in the room was that a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration system may finally happen. More than a dozen members of Congress — many of them from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — spoke, as did House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

But the main speaker was United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, who was in the middle of two days of lobbying members of the House and Senate.

"We are very honored to have such a tremendous group of friends here that have the power and the ability and the capacity and the desire and the will to bring about the change for millions of immigrants in our nation," he said.

Rodriguez said it's important to always remind Americans who does the backbreaking work to get produce into stores and onto their tables. It's estimated that as many as 70 percent of workers in the fields are undocumented.

"Farm workers should have enough food to feed our families, and we should have the right to be able to live with dignity and respect like anyone else here in this nation," Rodriguez said.

An agreement between farm workers and growers is just one of the many complex pieces that must be in place before an immigration bill can be taken up by Congress. The United Farm Workers union has been bargaining with agribusinesses behind the scenes for months. Those writing the proposed immigration legislation need key players in an industry so reliant on an immigrant workforce on board.

Kristi Boswell of the American Farm Bureau Federation says growers need to know they will be able to find enough workers and remain competitive, even as wages go up.

"We are working to have a solution that allows agriculture to have a legal workforce," she says. "We are hoping that what these discussions unveil lead to wise policy decisions that fix that solution in the long run, so we're not back in this situation in 10, 15 years."

Labor analysts, meanwhile, see the talks between growers and the farm workers as significant in several ways.

"The context of these talks is critical," says Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, "both because farm labor is a vital part of the economy, but also because of the growing clout of the Latino vote. Both play into this and have given it an unusual importance in the context of broader immigration reform."

Shaiken says the political situation "has given a huge injection of leverage into the United Farm Workers. It is a very small union, but it has outside moral stature and visibility in general, but particularly in the Hispanic community."

And the United Farm Workers and their friends in Congress see the immigration debate as not just an opportunity, but as a preview of a future where their presence is increasingly felt.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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