WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Zoe Lofgren called for immigration reform this week during a congressional hearing examining the role of undocumented immigrants in the essential workforce.
The San Jose Democrat said essential workers, such as those working in agriculture or food processing, have risked their lives by continuing to work in-person throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many immigrant essential workers are undocumented and live under the constant threat of removal,” she said. “Many others are protected by temporary programs, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or the Temporary Protected Status, but they too live in fear as a result of the (Trump) administration’s efforts to terminate these programs. They deserve better.”
Lofgren, who was speaking at the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship’s Sept. 23 hearing, said it was time to acknowledge the fundamental role immigrants play in society. The congresswoman, who serves as the subcommittee’s chair, said House lawmakers have passed multiple bills that would protect these workers.
The American Dream and Promise Act would provide permanent lawful residence to DACA recipients, she explained, while the Heroes Act would protect essential workers from removal during the pandemic.
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colorado, said he respected the contributions of immigrants who were legally living and working in the United States. But he objected to the notion that undocumented immigrants deserved protections.
The pandemic has caused a rise in unemployment, he said, and out-of-work Americans should be given the jobs currently held by undocumented workers.
“It is important that we recognize that those who are here illegally should leave,” Buck said. “We should take even more swift action to ensure that they leave and we should make sure that our southern border is secure so we don’t allow more illegal immigrants to come into this country.”
The subcommittee heard from four witnesses, including Vicente Reyes, a student and DACA recipient residing in Bakersfield (Kern County). Reyes told the lawmakers he came to the United States from Mexico when he was five years old.
Reyes said he worked for years harvesting crops alongside his parents. He said the work was always challenging and has only become more dangerous amid the pandemic and recent wildfires.
Reyes added many undocumented workers are not given personal protective equipment because employers know they are afraid to speak out against unsafe working conditions.
“Without our labor, the food supply chain would collapse,” he said. “…Farm workers and the rest of our nation’s undocumented immigrants deserve a path to legitimization and citizenship that recognizes the essential role that we play in this nation.”
Lofgren recalled that her husband also grew up in Bakersfield and briefly took a summer job harvesting carrots. He quickly learned harvesting crops requires skills and experience, she said, even if it does not require a college education.
“You can’t just walk in and pick enough carrots to actually produce anything if you don’t know what the heck you are doing,” she said. “…To think that these are jobs that are going to be easily filled is not correct.”
Lofgren, a former immigration lawyer, reiterated that it was time to update and restructure the nation’s immigration laws.
“If a scientist who is doing cutting-edge research on COVID -19 was born in India, she can’t get a visa, but if she was born in Germany, she could,” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We have structured this in a way that really doesn’t serve America.”
Undocumented immigrants comprised 9 percent of California’s workforce in 2016, according to the American Immigration Council. The state is also home to more than 183,000 DACA recipients.
Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.