Lulu Guerrero wakes up at her home in Wiggins, sometimes as early as 3 a.m., to get out to the farm fields that spread across Weld County in every direction and start her days planting and harvesting watermelons, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins.
Guerrero, who entered the United States illegally nearly 20 years ago and has worked in Colorado’s $41 billion a year agricultural industry ever since, lives in constant worry about her future and that of the hundreds of thousands of other immigrant workers who labor in America’s farm fields.
“We were called essential during the pandemic — all we want is the opportunity to get out of the shadows and stay in the country,” she said through a translator.
Guerrero, 53, spent last week in Washington, D.C., pushing for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a federal bill that would create a path to legal residency — and potentially eventual citizenship — for undocumented farmworkers in the United States.
It passed the House last year — with 30 Republicans signing on — but has yet to get a hearing in the U.S. Senate. It needs 60 votes in the Senate to make it to the president’s desk for his signature.
Antonio De Loera-Brust, spokesman for the United Farm Workers, said time is of the essence as Congress is now in a lame-duck session following the midterm elections. With Republicans poised to take back control of the House in January, De Loera-Brust said the bill needs to get a vote before the end of the year.
“If we can’t get it through the Senate this year, we won’t be able to get it through the House next time,” he said of Republican opposition. “They have a big to-do list and we’re making sure we’re on it.”
To that end, the United Farm Workers helped bring out Guerrero and more than 60 other agricultural workers from nine states to Washington to rally for the measure last week. Guerrero met with Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who along with Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, is crafting a Senate version of the bill.
“This Thanksgiving we can’t forget that it’s our farmworkers — like Lulu — who work hard to provide food for Americans across the country, and we desperately need to pass my legislation to ensure they can continue to work and earn their right to legal status,” Bennet told The Denver Post last week.
Colorado has about 40,000 agricultural workers, a large portion of whom come from Mexico on seasonal or temporary federal visas, or are permanent residents.
The version of the bill that passed the House last year allows farmworkers to obtain temporary “certified agricultural worker” status, which would immediately protect them from deportation. To qualify, they have to prove employment in U.S. agriculture for at least 180 work days over the two years prior to the bill’s introduction.
Applicants must also pass security and law enforcement background checks and pay a fee.
Workers with certified agricultural worker status would have the ability to travel outside of the United States and then return. They could apply for permanent resident status — or a green card — and eventually citizenship, though that would require up to eight more years of farm work.
De Loera-Brust said critics, like some Republican senators, who have deemed it an amnesty bill that incentivizes illegal entry into the country have it wrong.
“It’s not amnesty,” he said. “It’s not an immediate pathway to citizenship.”
The bill has also been criticized by some farmworker advocacy groups, who say it doesn’t go far enough in protecting migrant workers.
The Colorado Farm Bureau has taken a neutral position on the bill and is waiting to see what language the Senate version yields once it is introduced in the chamber. Ashley House, director of public policy for federal affairs, said her organization has concerns that language in the bill might encourage “frivolous” labor law lawsuits that could “put ranchers or farmers out of business.”
She also said the measure’s caps on H-2A visas — so-called guest worker permits — are too low given the need for more workers in the state’s agricultural operations. But overall, House said, the industry backs a “stable workforce and a workforce granted appropriate legal rights and an appropriate path to citizenship and stability for producers.”
Bennet said the bill directly addresses the concerns of Colorado farmers and ranchers, who are “facing a labor crisis that is hamstringing their operations and driving food prices up.”
“Passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the lame-duck session would relieve the labor shortage, support our farmworkers and lower food costs for Coloradans,” he said.
De Loera-Brust said beyond labor supply and food prices, the bill addresses the need to give proper consideration to a huge group in the country that does the work Americans themselves largely won’t do.
“These are the people who put food on our table on Thanksgiving,” he said. “Shouldn’t these people have the right to live with their families without the fear of being separated? If your labor feeds Americans, you have earned the right to stay in America.”
Guerrero noticed the lettuce and tomatoes in the salads of congressional staffers as they grabbed lunch at the Capitol last week and wondered if any of her own work brought those ingredients to the nation’s capital.
“The hardest part is not knowing whether I will be able to stay in the country at any given point,” she said.