There are few places in America where the everyday impact of immigrant labor is more salient than in San Joaquin Valley, California. It is in this fertile agricultural region that grapes, citrus, almonds, carrots, alfalfa, cotton, and roses thrive. And one of the members of Congress who represents parts of this Valley also happens to be a top-ranking House Republican, and the top contender to take over the House Majority Leader position once Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) steps down on July 31st. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents a district that is 35 percent Latino, has been a longtime target for immigration activists. But with the unexpected shift in Republican leadership, it remains an open question whether he will be more aggressive in moving immigration reform than other House Republican leaders.
Thus far, McCarthy has expressed willingness to grant legal status to some undocumented immigrants, saying in January that legal status “will allow you to work and pay taxes.” But he stopped short of supporting legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship.
McCarthy is the only member of Congress in the San Joaquin Valley who has not strongly supported immigration reform, according to Voxxi. United Farm Workers (UFW) President Arturo Rodriguez told Voxxi, “The reality is that 70 percent, if not 80 percent, of farm workers in the United States today and within his district do not have documents. As a result, this should be the number one priority for him, and it makes no sense to us at all that he has not given us a vote on this issue in the House of Representatives.” As Sen. John McCain said after Mitt Romney’s defeat with Latino voters in November 2012, Republican legislators should have “a new appreciation” for their Latino constituents.
Meanwhile, Reps. Jeff Denham (R-CA) and David Valadao (R-CA) have publicly backed comprehensive immigration reform. Denham even went so far as to file a measure that would allow some undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship through military service. Denham told the Huffington Post recently that his support for reform “wasn’t a career killer” saying, “There are a number of members that are really fighting on immigration reform that are doing very well in their elections. But again, we’ve got to pick up the bills and have a full debate.”
Although he has similar district demographics to Denham, McCarthy has not taken a stronger position despite being the target of multiple protests, generally opting instead to lock out immigrants. In August 2013, about 1,500 activists from California held a rally in front of McCarthy’s office to demand that he support citizenship. His spokesman said at the time that “he welcomed visitors to Bakersfield but valued input from his constituents more.” In November 2013, 13 immigrant women staged a sit-in at his office and the police locked them in, depriving them of food, water, or medication. When McCarthy finally met with them late at night, America’s Voice reported that he told the women that he was “‘serious about solving the problem’ but refused to sign a pledge to push for a House vote.” In December 2013, labor unions including UFW picketed and protested at McCarthy’s office eight days in a row, each time getting locked out. In April, the UFW camped out all night and 1,100 activists gathered to march, protest, and deliver produce with the message, “farm workers harvest for 10 hours a day. Why hasn’t Rep. McCarthy, and the House GOP, taken even 10 minutes to pass immigration reform?” And on Wednesday, UFW supporters including the organization’s president Arturo Rodriguez, were arrested at the Capitol after they failed to meet with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Cantor, and McCarthy. All three House leaders had their office doors locked.
Immigration reform is especially critical for farm workers who are often subjected to low wages and dangerous and unsanitary working conditions. Over half of the two million seasonal workers in the U.S. do not have legal status and many are too afraid to report these conditions. They are also directly exposed to pesticides and many do not have access to health care. The stalled Senate bill would have created a Blue Card program, which offers a path to citizenship for the current undocumented farm worker population and it would have created two new agricultural visa programs to accommodate the future flow of guest workers. What’s more, immigration reform would decrease that fear of deportation and empower farm workers “to improve their inadequate wages and working conditions,” according to Farm Worker Justice. The organization also stated that “an above-board agricultural labor relations system will lead to better working conditions, less employee turnover and higher productivity, all of which will help ensure a prosperous agricultural sector.”
Giev Kashkooli, the strategic campaigns director of UFW, told ThinkProgress on Thursday, “The question for Congressman McCarthy is whether he will step up and take a leadership role in scheduling a vote on immigration reform that would invigorate the Bakersfield economy, hold abusive employers accountable, and lift farm workers out of the shadows; or will he continue ceding power to hateful extremists in the House Republican Conference to the peril of the people he represents?”
“So far, Congressman McCarthy has demonstrated that his first priority is representing other politicians in Washington and not the people who elect him at home,” Kashkooli added.
But no matter what position Cantor’s replacement takes, immigration reform won’t move without the backing of Boehner. During a press conference on Thursday, Boehner said that the House was unlikely to move on immigration reform because President Obama released five Taliban-linked prisoners in exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom. In the meantime, the Obama administration has halted efforts to review deportation policies in order to allow Congress to work on immigration reform legislation.