Politics of Poverty

How protecting immigrant farmworkers benefits everyone in the food chain

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A farmworker in Washington works on a field of onions. Growing onions in Walla Walla, WA requires hot, dry conditions, along with a lot of manual labor. As farmers say they need more labor and undocumented workers fear arrest and deportation, more legislators are becoming interested in finding a way for workers to earn a path to legal status and citizenship. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

A new compromise bill in Congress finds common ground at a time when we desperately need it.

Suppose all the people in US without proper documentation did all just leave one day. Millions, back to their countries of origin. What next?

Well, those of us left behind would face a lot of inconveniences. That hotel room might not get cleaned. Construction sites would slow to a crawl. The people who slice and fry and season and serve our food–they’re not in those arduous, steamy, frigid, exhausting jobs any more.

But mostly? We’d be searching for produce—from apples and strawberries to cabbages and potatoes—and, if we did find it, it likely would have been imported.

The truth is, that of the roughly 2.4 million farmworkers in the US—the ones cutting lettuce, picking cucumbers and pruning grapevines– the majority are working here without proper authorization. And that is why an unusual and powerful coalition of actors has come together recently to work out a groundbreaking solution.

What is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act?

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a piece of legislation with bipartisan support in Congress (sponsors include 26 Democrats and 23 Republicans). It also has the endorsement of farmworker organizations and industry leaders all along the food supply chain, including Farmworker Justice, the Idaho Onion Growers Association, United Farm Workers, and the Dairy Farmers of America.

The Act has three core elements:

  1. Legal status for undocumented farmworkers who have been in the country with or without documentation. Eligible applicants are provided 5-year work visas and have the opportunity to earn Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status. Their immediate family gets dependent status; they can travel back and forth to their country of origin.
  2. Improvements to the H-2A program (for temporary agricultural workers). The visa program, which has no official cap on number of workers, has grown dramatically over the past few years—accounting for roughly a quarter of a million farmworkers. The bill would make it easier for employers to file for and obtain visas, and offer more protections to workers; and, for the first time ever, would offer the chance for a Green Card.
  3. Mandatory E-Verify in the agricultural sector.

Immigrants continue to live in fear

So why now? Immigrant communities in the US are living under a dark cloud of “fear and desperation” that grows more ominous each day. From a garden center in Ohio to a trailer factory in Texas, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has swarmed workplaces and arrested hundreds of people who could not show proof of proper documentation.

“We’re facing the height of the crisis on immigration,” notes Adrienne DerVartanian of Farmworker Justice. “The administration is hostile to immigrants, and the enforcement measures are drastic. The effect is that workers, their families, and their communities are living in fear.”

When ICE descended on poultry plants in Morton, MS in August, they arrested 680 people—on the first day of school. Hundreds of children waited for relatives to pick them up, or to return home, only to discover that their parents were in detention.

As a result, says DerVartanian, “workers are hesitant to expose themselves to enforcement, so they don’t travel, and they don’t go to new places. They may encounter immigration enforcement on the highways, so they’re not mobile like they used to be. This is a problem not only for farmworkers and their families, but for the businesses that depend on immigrant workers.”

A huge step forward for workers, employers, and consumers

With unemployment at record lows, and workers are in short supply, employers need these immigrants to keep their businesses running. So they came to the table, and they hammered out a compromise that meets needs on all sides.

“When I meet with dairymen and potato farmers, maintaining a legal workforce is always their number one issue,” notes Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID). Jim Bair, CEO of the US Apple Association, says, “A stable, legal, and reliable workforce is critical if we are to continue to have a vibrant domestic apple supply.”

At a time when the administration continues to throw fuel on the anti-immigration flames, this bill takes a huge step forward for workers, employers, and even consumers. And farmworker families need to know they will be protected after years of hard work and community building.

“These people are part of their communities,” says Farmworker Pablo Gregorio. “Many have been here for decades working the fields. They work long hard hours doing jobs many Americans won’t do. They have children who are citizens. Yet, many of them are afraid to go to the store for a carton of milk due to the constant threat of deportation.”

Send a message today in support of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to your Members of Congress here.

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