The time has come to pay the historic debt we owe to our agriculture workers
By Maribel Hastings and David Torres • America’s Voice
Whenever summer arrives, with its intense heat waves, everyone remembers that there are millions of agriculture workers who, no matter the temperature or the circumstances, pick and process the products that feed this country. And they do it in the middle of intense heat, cold, and the pandemic, under precarious working conditions, housing, salaries, and benefits.
As if that were not enough, half of the 2.4 million farm workers who are working in U.S. fields do not have their documents in order.
Even President Joe Biden had the opportunity to see, up close in Michigan this weekend, how immigrant labor is a fundamental part of this difficult work, showing up at a cherry orchard with a group of Guatemalan immigrants who have worked there for more than three decades.
“We’re a nation of immigrants, every one of us,” said the president to Central American farm workers, embracing José Sebastián along with his co-worker and wife, María Pascual.
But beyond the season and the opportunity to symbolically and personally thank immigrant agriculture workers for their labor, the worst thing about it is, paradoxically, that we recognize that this group is exploited in such a way, in the most powerful nation on the planet; and although bills come and go, it still seems that nothing is done to grant justice to these essential workers who guarantee nothing less than the continuation of our food supply. Almost nothing, right?
In fact, any sort of stoppage in this sector, for whatever reason, would risk not only the economic stability, but also the very health of the country, a situation that could have occurred during the worst stage of the pandemic. But no matter how hot or cold it is, these workers nobly buried their hands in the earth to continue feeding a population that has erased them or even attacked them, speaking of the most anti-immigrant sector of the U.S. population, both politicians and society.
In March, for example, the House of Representatives approved a bill to regularize approximately 1.2 million agriculture workers in the United States, half of those 2.4 million workers who labor in fields, ranches, and dairy farms around the country for a precarious wage that may never reach, on average, $30,000 annually, according to data from the Office of Labor Statistics, depending on the state in which they live.
And although the measure was approved in a 247-174 vote, with support from thirty Republicans—something that in this day and age is truly a rarity—in the slightly-Democratic majority Senate, nothing has happened. There they require the support of at least ten Republicans to reach sixty votes and overcome the usual Republican filibusters to these bills.
In May, Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice Fund, testified in a hearing before the Subcommittee Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Security in the Senate about the essential role migrant workers in the United States play, and exposed how such an exploited labor sector is also vital to our economy.
“In 2019, America’s farms contributed $136 billion to the U.S. economy. The broader agriculture and food industry that relies on these farms contributed over $1 trillion, more than 5% of domestic GDP. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, the market value of crops that depend most heavily on farmworker labor, including fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts, was nearly $48.2 billion,” said Goldstein.
“It is long past the time for Congress to pass immigration reform that grants noncitizen farmworkers and their family members the opportunity to obtain legal immigration status and a path to citizenship. Such immigration legislation would reduce the unfair challenges and harms that farmworker families face, many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Immigration status would also help stabilize the farm labor workforce for the benefit of farm owners and ensure a secure food supply for the country,’ added the activist.
Essentially, the way in which we have made farm workers wait to be legalized is not only unjust. It is immoral.
And whoever does not realize this, or even who, despite knowing this reality, tries to block the immigration regularization of these thousands of migrant families who have given everything to this country, would be justifying a regimen of perverse exploitation that already exceeds a human rights violation. And that is why it is time to act, not just play politics with the lives of farm workers.
At this moment in history, President Joe Biden has a bust of the iconic farm worker leader César Chávez in the Oval Office, while the granddaughter of Chávez, Julie Rodriguez, directs the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in the White House. It remains to be seen how admiration and symbolism translate into the pressure necessary to produce the required votes in Congress to pay the historic debt that this country owes to farm workers.