Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California
US & World

'For us, this is huge': The view from California on immigration reform

California's agriculture industry is among the many that stand to be affected by comprehensive immigration reform.
California's agriculture industry is among the many that stand to be affected by comprehensive immigration reform.
David McNew/Getty Images

If there is sweeping immigration reform, it would have a dramatic effect in California. The state has the most immigrants — legal and otherwise —  of any state in the country. 

California is also home to industries strongly represented in the Senate's immigration reform bill, among them agriculture and technology, both of which would benefit from guest worker visas. And it's home to many immigrant families who may not need a path to citizenship, but who depend on a backlogged visa system to bring loved ones here legally.

"California has the most to gain and the most to lose," said Reshma Shamasunder, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, a statewide immigrant advocacy organization. "We have a huge economy. We have industries that depend on STEM workers, and that depend on low-wage workers. For us, this is huge."

Parts of the bill stand to affect Californians in different ways. For starters, the legalization component could affect at least 2.6 Californians — the number of people estimated to be here illegally. In 2010, unauthorized immigrants made up an estimated seven percent of the state's population, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

There are also an estimated 400,000-plus young people in California who could have a faster track to legal status because they are eligible for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Under the proposal, they'd be able to obtain green cards in five years.

Legal status for other unauthorized immigrants could take a while under the Senate bill, the highlights of which were released as a summary. Border security benchmarks would have to be met first, and even then, most of those who qualify would have only provisional legal status for the first 10 years. But they would be able to work legally, contributing to the state's economy and paying taxes.

Already, legal and unauthorized immigrants are estimated to make up 34 percent of California's workforce, accounting for about a third of the state's gross domestic product, according to a University of Southern California report. (The PPIC report has unauthorized immigrants alone accounting for nine percent of the state's workforce.) 

Immigrants make up the bulk of workers in the state's agriculture industry, the largest in the U.S. At least half of those working in California are not here legally, said Eric Larson, director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

But many farmers in the state have resisted using the existing H-2A guest worker program, he said, which they deem cumbersome and only allows growers to bring in workers on an as-needed basis. The Senate bill proposes two new guest worker visas that would allow a continuing supply of foriegn workers. 

"It's a really big deal, because the current situation is just not tenable," Larson said. "The workforce diminishes as it ages, and people are working with fraudulent documents. There are farm owners who have a very tentative workforce." 

There would also be a category for lower-skilled guest workers, called a "W" visa, created for non-agriculture workers in occupations such as construction and the service and domestic industries. But in its adjustments to the immigrant visa system, the Senate proposal makes clear that highly skilled immigrants are sought after.

One provision, for example, would lift annual limits on visas for "outstanding professors and researchers" and doctoral degree-holders in the STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Another would create a new merit-based visa for "talented individuals" working in the U.S., with points given for education and other factors.

All of these categories play a part in the state's tech industry. California tech leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Irving Jacobs of San Diego-based Qualcomm have been among those who have argued for more high-skilled worker visas, with Zuckerberg recently launching his own immigration reform campaign. Zuckerberg wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last weekend:

Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return? Why don’t we let entrepreneurs move here when they have what it takes to start companies that will create even more jobs?

The Senate bill addresses both, proposing a startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs and raising the base cap of H-1B visas for high-skilled workers from 65,000 to 110,ooo a year, although critics have argued that still won't be enough visas to meet employer demand.

Still, more employer-based visas will come at the expense of family-based visas, and this is a big deal in California, too. The Senate proposal would eliminate immigrant visas for siblings of U.S. citizens, as well as their adult married children over age 30.

About 40 percent of the hopeful immigrants now waiting in line for sibling and adult married child visas are Asian, said Betty Hung of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which has lobbied to keep the family visa categories intact. Asians are also California's fastest-growing immigrant group, recently surpassing Latinos. 

"For immigrants, including Asians, we realize success in this country because of our families," Hung said. "To eliminate certain family members, like brothers and sisters, and to impose an age cutoff of 31 and over, we think that it really limits the prospects for immigrant families in this country."

The Senate bill is on track to be introduced any day now, with initial hearings planned for Friday and a vote likely by summer.