Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

The immigration debate in Sonoma County is a real “bread and butter” issue. It’s a food and jobs issue that trumps the controversies over sanctuary cities or building a wall at the Mexican border. At stake is supporting our county’s agriculture workforce, protecting immigrant families and preserving our family farms and ag-based economy.

Why are we tolerating talk about deporting millions of undocumented immigrants when we should be talking about how to make these earnest workers and their families more welcome here?

Sonoma County and the rest of California have a heightened interest in immigration reforms. In California, nine out of 10 ag workers are foreign born and more than half are here illegally. Sonoma County’s winegrape harvest and diverse farm output is very dependent on this same worker population.

There are 52,000 foreign-born or first generation people in the county. Most (85 percent) are from Mexico. Threats of mass deportation have led to farm worker shortages and added to labor costs. Rumors of ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) sweeps and “build the wall” rallies, have chased willing workers and their families into the shadows — and away from real solutions.

Sonoma County should stand up for these 52,000 “illegals” and win them the human dignity, fair opportunity and safety they deserve. Beyond agriculture, our Latino population is a fast-growing and expanding influence in our communities’ cultural, business and leadership roles.

It’s not news that America needs major reforms to its immigration laws. The travesty here is that no real changes have been made since 1986 and people’s lives on both sides of the border have been torn apart, threatened and shortened.

We can do better.

Last month a remarkable entourage boarded a bus and visited the office of the Consulate General of Mexico in San Francisco. On board were leaders of Los Cien, the Latino community leadership organization, county supervisors James Gore and Lynda Hopkins, Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse and county Farm Bureau president Steve Dutton.

“Without labor from Mexico, California ag wouldn’t exist,” said Dutton, an apple and grape farmer from Graton. “We need a stable and reliable workforce for agriculture. Immigration reform isn’t something we should just talk about, it’s a pressing issue that needs action.”

Last week U.S. Senators Feinstein and Harris of California helped introduce a Worker Program Act that would update border security requirements while establishing a citizenship path for temporary workers and undocumented immigrants already here. The proposal includes a series of worker verification and monitoring programs being called a Blue Card system.

The Feinstein-Harris proposal is almost identical to a law passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013 but never allowed a vote by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The last full debate about U.S. immigration laws took place way back in the Reagan Administration. Since then, myths, xenophobia (fear of strangers), bogus crime stats and nativist protectionism have taken over.

It’s a myth that undocumented workers don’t pay taxes and get free social services and health care. California’s undocumented workers paid $3 billion in taxes last year, which helped provide for their children’s schooling and health checkups. (Undocumented adults must pay for their own health care.)

This isn’t about all Mexicans being rapists, drug dealers and other “bad hombres.” Quite the opposite.

“There’s a real sense of insecurity right now among farm workers and agricultural producers,” said Chris Paige, of the California Human Development Corporation. “It’s critically important to insure a safe, secure, stable workforce. It’s equally important to be fair and just in our treatment of human beings who play an essential role in our communities.”

Let’s all jump on the immigration reform bus with our county’s ag, government and Latino leaders. Let’s replace immigration myths with immigration answers.

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