Central Bakersfield

Immigration reform hot debate in Bakersfield

Immigration reform hot debate in Bakersfield »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — With an immigration reform bill now in Congress, local community activists hope to drum up support for its passage.

"We have to keep our eyes on the prize, which is a pathway to citizenship," said Roberto de la Cruz with Kern Coalition for Citizenship.

The bill is titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. A group of four Democrat and four Republican senators known as "the gang of eight" have been working on the proposed legislation for months.

Among other things, the bill is meant to beef up border security, increase visas for foreign workers and increase penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers.

Undocumented immigrants who have not committed a serious crime and meet other criteria would be able to obtain a work permit. They could apply for citizenship 10 years later.

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, including thousands in Kern County who are counting on Congress to ultimately approve the bill.

"This would provide my children with a better future," said Lucia Barajas, who has worked in the fields as an undocumented immigrant for 10 years.

The agriculture industry is also on board, as the bill would allow farm workers to earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture and offer the same protections to their immediate family members.

The bill also replaces the existing H2-A agricultural guest worker program with a new visa program .

"There's no reason for these people who want to come here and work legally to have to cross the border illegally," said Ben McFarland, director of the Kern County Farm Bureau.

Kern Coalition for Citizenship took aim at Congressman Kevin McCarthy, claiming McCarthy has refused to meet with the group to discuss the issue, as well as to yet state his support for a pathway to citizenship.

"There's a process of stone walling going on by our representative Kevin McCarthy. This has to stop," said California State University, Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos.

Eyewitness News also tried to get a direct answer from McCarthy on the issue. His office issued the following statement:

"We are a proud nation of immigrants, but we’re also a nation of laws. We must consider both principles when we work to solve this immigration problem. Enforcement and border security must be addressed first as we look to find real solutions that are clear, concise, understandable and enforceable. Our current immigration system is broken and immigration reform needs to take a common sense approach that focuses on a long-term solution. I welcome input from our community on this important issue as Congress continues to examine various ideas."