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Strength in compromise 

Finding common ground and hope for Santa Maria, ground zero for national controversy over immigration

Cities are difficult to govern. They are not empowered, protected, or even recognized by the U.S. Constitution. They cannot print money or set interest rates. They cannot control the people and businesses that move into them, or move out. They sit between the rock and hard place of raising enough tax revenue to cover the municipal services that their constituents are ever demanding, without chasing residents and businesses away by raising taxes by too much. Cities are good places for leaders to be "damned if they do and damned if they don't."

I have lived in Philadelphia and worked in and around the cities of Newark, Elizabeth, and Patterson, New Jersey. I've seen city administrations in these municipalities tested by fiscal crises, transit and sanitation strikes, persistent poverty, endemic housing abandonment, crumbling infrastructures, declining populations, high crime rates, and displacement of working class and impoverished residents through gentrification.

These cities are larger and more complex than Santa Maria. Yet, their leaders have not faced what Santa Maria's city administration is dealing with today: a virtual assault on the local political economy by the executive branch of our federal government.

Santa Maria is at "ground zero" for our national controversy over immigration. During the Obama administration, ICE worksite enforcement inspections decimated the workforces of some of our long established and respectable farming enterprises in the Santa Maria Valley. Our local growers and shippers had already been experiencing labor shortages and were highly dependent on undocumented workers. The dismissal of hundreds of farmworkers by ICE worksite enforcement shook Santa Maria's most important industry like an earthquake.

Under the Trump administration, ICE worksite enforcement has stepped up its activities across the U.S. Fear of labor losses from more worksite inspections hangs heavy over the farming industry in our region. Moreover, playing upon people's unfounded fears and prejudice to amass political power, President Trump errantly and unjustly disparages undocumented aliens, who constitute a sizable portion of Santa Maria's hardworking and upright residents.

Lack of an effective national immigration policy is also challenging Santa Maria's housing policy. A local housing issue has arisen because of the federal H-2A visa program, which allows growers and farm labor contractors to bring in foreign workers for up to 10 months a year. The program was established in 1986 (fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R44849.pdf ), but for decades few growers and labor contractors participated in it.

Participation in the H-2A visa program is difficult and expensive. Among a plethora of requirements is the provision of free housing for the guest workers, which must meet a number of standards.

The cost-benefit calculus of employing guest farmworkers through H-2A visas shifted dramatically over the last several years in our region with the rising farm labor shortage, compounded by increased ICE worksite enforcement action. Growers and farm labor contractors now have little choice but to participate in the program.

By 2017, the number of H-2A guest workers being housed in Santa Maria totaled approximately 1,700. This took city officials by surprise because few complaints had been filed over H-2A housing. Workers here on H-2A visas have proven to be well behaved and quiet residents. But a substantial number of H-2A guest workers in Santa Maria are residing in groups in single-family houses in residentially zoned neighborhoods.

A long and divisive but relatively civil argument has ensued among residents and the agriculture industry on the appropriate placement of housing for H-2A guest workers in Santa Maria. Perhaps the greatest concern over H-2A housing is the conversion of existing residential properties into guest worker housing and the resulting increase in rents and diminishment of available affordable housing in Santa Maria.

Many would categorize H-2A housing as another "no win" issue for the Santa Maria's leadership. I take issue with that assessment, however, because of something that happened in the struggle over H-2A housing that shows promise for the city. It involves the agreement of two influential and talented leaders in the Santa Maria community.

Hazel Davalos, who leads the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) in our North County region, publicly expressed support for H-2A housing in Santa Maria—but she also urged City Council to adopt a tenant displacement compensation ordinance. The ordinance will assist residents who are required to move out of rented housing units when they are purchased and/or converted to accommodate H-2A guest workers. Owners of the properties would be required to pay a fee to tenants in the amount of three to four months' rent to help them obtain another place to live.

Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, has publicly supported Ms. Davalos' tenant displacement compensation proposal, with a relaxing of the permitting of H-2A housing in medium density, residential neighborhoods.

Davalos leads a coalition of grassroots interests in our region. It includes organized labor and also advocates for the rights of the least empowered workers in the city, including undocumented farm laborers. Yet, despite this commitment to worker rights, Davalos and her coalition have not lost sight of the need for the agriculture industry of Santa Maria to thrive. After all, it is this industry that provides so many of the city's residents with a living.

Wineman leads an association of more than 170 growers, produce shippers, labor contractors, and related businesses. Despite factors challenging the farming industry, including labor shortages and decreasing water resources, Wineman and her association members have not lost sight of the needs of the Santa Maria community. After all, many of the association members call this community home, as do many of their employees.

Davalos and Wineman found common ground on the need and placement of H-2A housing and how to help mitigate its unintended impact on residents of Santa Maria.

Common ground is what Santa Maria must find more of. It is the place where the city will find strength to take its stand for the welfare of its people and economy—and push back against external forces that threaten them. Δ

Scott Fina is a Santa Maria resident. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a letter for publication and email it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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