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In strawberry fields, immigration reform holds sweet promise

Farm workers harvest squash in Rancho Santa Fe, California in this October 3, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files
Farm workers harvest squash in Rancho Santa Fe, California in this October 3, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files

By Lisa Baertlein and Gus Ruelas

OXNARD, California (Reuters) - California farm worker Antonia Espinoza would likely be throwing in the towel and heading back to her native Mexico to see her children, if not for the work of eight U.S. senators in Washington.

The bipartisan group of senators unveiled on Tuesday their proposal for immigration reform that would remove the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented workers and open a door for them to one day become U.S. citizens.

Espinoza, 32, lives with her U.S.-born daughter but is missing the other four children she left behind in Mexico so she could work in the strawberry fields in Oxnard, California, where pickers can take home $80 to $100 a shift on good days.

If not for the promise of legislation, she said on Tuesday, "I would be there right now."

"It's been too long. I want to see them now. I can't because, if this legislation passes, I'll have papers and I won't have to worry," said Espinoza, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico, and has not seen her children there during her latest four-year stay in the United States.

"I hope this time they're going to do it and not just talk about it," she said.

The proposed bill, which President Barack Obama endorsed on Tuesday, gives farm laborers like Espinoza a faster path toward U.S. citizenship than other undocumented workers.

It would give legal status to undocumented workers who were employed in agriculture in the past two years. After five to seven years, they could apply for permanent residency. Other workers would have to wait 10 years.

United Farm Workers union President Arturo Rodriguez estimates that a million farm workers and their families could gain legal status under the Senate bill.

"This is a huge step forward," Rodriguez said, adding that the workers would be able to buy cars and homes, engage openly in society and travel without fear. They also would have more protections on the job.

While the bill is touted by its Republican and Democratic supporters as the best chance to overhaul immigration since the 1980s, it will likely face a months-long battle, with the biggest challenge expected in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Pro-reform advocates like Rodriguez have also said it is time for the United States to have a legal workforce to produce its food. A large part of the agricultural workforce, 60 percent by one estimate, is undocumented but is vital for growing fruit, vegetables and other crops and tending livestock.

In California, laborers from Mexico and Central America help make it the No. 1 farm state, with over $43 billion in cash receipts in 2011.

The state also supplies some 85 percent of the country's strawberries, and no place is more abundant in that crop than Oxnard, 60 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. Crews stoop in the green rows that stretch over the flat plain, plucking the red fruit with swift flicks of the wrist.

While the passage of legislation will allow them to stay and work, some workers appear to be just as interested in the ability to leave.

Adolfo Rodriguez Lopez, 41, has never returned to Mexico to visit his wife and four sons in Ensenada, Mexico, during the 12 years he has lived in the United States.

"When they get sick and you need (to) see them, you're not able to," said Rodriguez Lopez.

"Not only is it important (to) see my family, there is a certain tranquility of knowing that you're legally here and don't have to worry about the police," he said.

(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Philip Barbara)

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