Why Farmworkers Support Immigration Reform and So Should You

By: Adrienne DerVartanian, Director of Immigration and Labor Rights, Farmworker Justice

Photo Credit: David Bacon

Follow Farmworker Justice on Twitter at @FarmwrkrJustice.

Anyone who enjoys fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and chicken should be concerned about reforming our nation’s broken immigration system. Lilia, a 41-year-old farmworker with over 26 years of experience, notes that she has seen a difference in how employers treat documented and undocumented workers, with employers verbally intimidating undocumented workers. Even though many of the undocumented workers are treated unjustly, they stay quiet because they do not have papers. She believes immigration reform is very important for the farmworker community and will help workers better defend themselves.

Today, over one-half of the 2-2.4 million seasonal workers on U.S. farms and ranches lack authorized immigration status. And that lack of immigration status affects every aspect of farmworkers’ lives. Under the threat of deportation, workers accept low wages and harsh workplace conditions, and fear challenging illegal employment practices. Wage theft, sexual harassment, debt peonage, unnecessary exposure to pesticides and child labor are all too common.

We must fix our broken immigration system. Congress should create a road map to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans, including undocumented farmworkers and their family members. With legal immigration status, these workers could enforce their workplace protections and bargain for better wages and working conditions, making agriculture an occupation in which they can remain while supporting their families. And isn’t that what we want for the food we consume everyday—to know that it’s being cultivated and harvested safely, with respect for the workers whose labor we depend on?

Any reform must address the future. If workers are needed from outside the U.S. to fill agricultural jobs, they must come to the U.S. with a meaningful opportunity to become immigrants and citizens. These workers, like others, should also have the economic freedom to “vote with their feet,” and employers should compete for workers by offering good job terms. Future farmworkers should not be deprived of labor rights or access to the courts. Anything less would be contrary to our values of democracy, freedom and fairness.

Our current guestworker scheme conflicts with a vision that respects farmworkers. Agribusiness complains that they need a “workable” guestworker program, yet they already have access to an unlimited number of visas under the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. Despite the current H-2A guestworker program’s modest protections aimed at reducing exploitation of guestworkers and protecting the jobs, wages and other labor standards of U.S. farmworkers; the program is fundamentally flawed and rife with abuse. H-2A workers face discrimination, fraud and illegal fees during recruitment that leave them vulnerable to abuse when they arrive in the US. Once at their jobs,¬¬¬¬¬ they are tied to an employer for an entire season, must leave the country when the job ends, and never earn the opportunity to become an immigrant or citizen. There are hundreds of thousands of U.S. farmworkers, but H-2A program growers rarely hire them because they possess the freedom that guestworkers lack; the lack of freedom that makes it easy for employers to exert undue control over them.

Despite the fundamental unfairness to workers under the H-2A guestworker program, powerful agribusiness interests are lobbying for a new, even more exploitative guestworker system. Apparently their view of a “workable” proposal is one that would eliminate wage and other labor protections and minimize government oversight. These devastating, anti-worker proposals must be rejected.

As important contributors to our economy, farmworkers should possess economic freedom to find agricultural jobs and improve their wages and working conditions. Immigration reform must provide farmworkers, now and in the future, an opportunity to earn immigration status and citizenship.

Sign up for LULAC's "I Voted for Immigration Reform" Campaign to send a postcard to your Members of Congress saying that immigration reform must be passed in this Session at LULAC.org/CIR2013.

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