As Central Washington growers struggle to find enough workers to pick cherries and other crops, the U.S. House is weighing a divisive GOP proposal: allow undocumented immigrants to stay in this country – so long as they work in agriculture.

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PARKER, Yakima County — Sean Gilbert is a fifth-generation grower whose family harvests fruit from some 2,000 acres of Central Washington. They need a lot of help to get the job done, with some 800 workers now harvesting cherries and apricots that hang ripe on the trees.

Gilbert Orchards has long largely recruited men and women from the Hispanic community in Central Washington, where many lack valid work documents even though they may have lived here for years.

“These people are productive members of our community, and there has got to be a way for them to come out of the shadows,” Gilbert said.

These workers, estimated at more than 1.2 million, would be able to gain legal status under legislation crafted by House Republicans. That measure earlier this week was considered for inclusion as an amendment to a House immigration bill that was was defeated in a Wednesday vote. It now is expected to be taken up separately by the full House this summer, according to Will Boyington, a spokesman for Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who supports the legislation.

The legislation reflects acknowledgment by Republicans that these undocumented immigrants perform a vital task bringing food to the table. But it offers the workers no permanent residency or freedom to try other occupations, or a possible path to citizenship that some conservatives denounce as “amnesty.”

Instead, they would become guest workers, who can continue to labor in America’s fields and orchards so long as they make periodic trips back home. They would have to leave the country if they stop working in agriculture.

This legislation has been proposed at a time of heightened tensions in the farmworker community, which has been rattled by President Donald Trump’s withering attacks on undocumented immigrants. For some who risk deportation, the recent reports of the federal government separating parents from children along the Mexico border have a fearful resonance.

“I worry about the same,” said a single mother of seven who sorts apples in a Yakima-area packing house. “I think, ‘what do I need to do to stay out of trouble’ ” if immigration-enforcement officers come to her job site.

The agriculture labor bill has gained traction from an intensifying shortage of farmworkers in a strong economy where there are plenty of other options.

It makes it easier and cheaper to bring foreign laborers to the U.S., in part, by allowing farmers to charge for housing rather than providing it for free as required by current law.

The bill also would extend these same temporary visas to undocumented workers already in the United States.

“The legislation provides them the ability to come forward and get right with the law,” said Newhouse. “They can cross the border legally, work and return home legally.”

Cherry picking starts in the early morning and typically ends in early afternoon as the heat builds in the Yakima Valley.  (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)
Cherry picking starts in the early morning and typically ends in early afternoon as the heat builds in the Yakima Valley. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

This issue of farm labor hits close to home for the congressman whose family grows hops and fruit in Yakima County, a Republican stronghold where Trump claimed 53 percent of the vote in 2016.

This month, Newhouse said, he secured a commitment from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to address farm-labor legislation sometime this summer.

The Republican agricultural labor bill has been under development for months, and the provisions Newhouse hopes to see included in this week’s legislative package were also part of immigration legislation voted down last week in the House.

The legislation has come under attack from farmworker advocates.

Bruce Goldstein, of Farmworker Justice, says the legislation would separate laborers from their families and undermine their economic bargaining power.

The House Republicans’ approach in the legislation has divided the farm community.

Some organizations, including the American Farm Bureau and Wafla, a Washington-based association that helps farmers to hire guest workers, have endorsed the legislation as a way to ease labor shortages and offer a legal option to many U.S.-based workers.

Others have lobbied against it, including the Washington Growers League, of which Gilbert is a member.

They say long-term farmworkers in the United States deserve respect, dignity and some sort of legal residency for themselves and their family. That has made the proposal to turn undocumented workers into guest workers a key sticking point.

A March 5 letter to the House leadership signed onto by more than 60 farm groups, including the Yakima-based Growers League, stated that “making this entire population guest workers threatens chaos and crisis.”

“Lifted up this valley”

For cherry-harvest workers at Gilbert Orchards, picking starts at 5 a.m., when cool air still lingers in the irrigated green groves. Until 1:30 p.m., typically, they climb up and down aluminum ladders to pluck clusters of dark sweet cherries, which are dropped into plastic lugs that hang by straps from their shoulders.

How much they earn depends on how many lugs they fill. These wages have escalated in recent years, according to Gilbert, who says his cherry-harvest workers this year are averaging $18 per hour.

But it’s still been tough to recruit pickers locally.

“Especially the last few years,” Gilbert said, “it’s gotten harder and harder to find enough workers.”

Sean Gilbert walks the rows of Rainier cherries at his family’s orchards. These cherries require several pickings as the fruit ripens — and that requires a lot of labor.  (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)
Sean Gilbert walks the rows of Rainier cherries at his family’s orchards. These cherries require several pickings as the fruit ripens — and that requires a lot of labor. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

Raised in Wapato and Yakima, Gilbert majored in history at Pomona College in California. He sampled life as a professional baseball player in Belgium for the Brussels Kangaroos and as a finance intern in New York City. He helped launch a Washington winery before returning in 2005 to full-time work at the family orchards, where he is now CEO.

Gilbert says he does not know the legal status of all the workers picking the cherries. Federal law requires that he make sure everyone has documents and his business does that, he said. Like many farmers and growers, he does not use the federal E-Verify identity-check system to confirm their documents.

It is not known how many farmworkers in Washington state and elsewhere are undocumented, but some estimates say nearly 50 percent nationally may be here illegally.

The percentage may be considerably greater in the Yakima Valley, where many of the workers arrived more than a decade ago, when illegal immigration from Mexico was much higher. They are now part of a broader Latino community that in Yakima County makes up almost half the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As the influx of illegal immigrants to the Yakima Valley has slowed, growers have turned to a federal program that allows them to contract with foreign workers for up to 10 months under what are called H-2A visas.

Many growers complain the H-2A program is too bureaucratic, too expensive and in need of a congressional overhaul. But they are increasingly turning to the program. The number of guest workers in Washington jumped from less than 3,500 in 2011 to more than 18,500 in 2017.

This year, the number of guest workers — mostly from Mexico — will climb higher, with even Gilbert for the first time bringing in 40 guest workers.

To help with housing, a local group of growers bought a hotel in Yakima — FairBridge Inn & Suites — putting two bunk beds to a room and creating a big kitchen that, once completed, will offer meals.

Under the farm labor bill, these guest workers would be able to work for three years in the U.S., so long as they return to their home countries for at least 60 days during that time.

These are the same terms that would then be offered to workers in the U.S. illegally. If they chose not to come forward, they would have a hard time finding a job since the bill also requires farm employers to use E-Verify to check documents.

Many illegal farmworkers have hoped for a shot at legal residency. And a half-dozen workers interviewed by The Seattle Times were surprised — and wary — of the terms in the House bill.

“We are the ones that lifted up this valley — the Mexicans who work in the fields,” said José, a 59-year-old farmworker who came to America at age 17, hiking across the border and working in farming until three years ago, when he said a ladder injury ended his career.

Under the terms of the House bill, unless José could find a way to a farm job, he would need to return to Mexico.

Ángel, another undocumented worker interviewed by The Seattle Times, said a guest-worker permit “would be better than nothing. But after more than a decade in agriculture, in California and the Yakima Valley, he is eager for a career change. His dream, he says, is to open a social hall that could be rented out for weddings and other festive events.

“There are a lot of people like me who would love the opportunity to open their own businesses,” Ángel said. “That is the American dream.”

If a visa required him to stay in agriculture in the United States, he would consider returning to Mexico.

Struggle to continue

If the House passes a farm labor bill this summer, it still may falter in the Senate, and the political struggle over the fate of the nation’s undocumented farmworkers would grind on.

“When we look at human dignity, and how we would like to see ourselves as a nation, I think we will work through it,” Gilbert says. “I thought that for a long time, and not much has happened. But I do have faith we will ultimately sort it out.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated Wednesday to reflect developments in the House of Representatives.