When it comes to farm labor, immigration policy is labor policy. So this Labor Day, let’s hope that our collective advocacy persuades the President to create a generous program that helps many farmworker families. President Obama plans to grant some undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation and authorization to work. Unfortunately, whatever the President does won’t be enough. Only Congress can change the law.
Most of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers – at least 1.25 million and possibly 1.75 million -- are undocumented.
We as a nation permitted this to happen. A broken immigration system allowed employers to hire new immigrants and deprived these productive workers of immigration status. Such vulnerable workers, especially absent a union, cannot negotiate for job terms as forcefully as U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
“We have long waivered and compromised on the issue of migratory labor in agriculture. We have failed to adopt policies designed to insure an adequate supply of such labor at decent standards of employment. . . . We have used the institutions of government to procure alien labor willing to work under obsolete and backward conditions and thus to perpetuate those very conditions.” Report of the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor (1951), p.23
The President should offer administrative relief. And then Congress should offer a true legal immigration status and opportunity to earn citizenship But that is not enough.
“Shall we continue indefinitely to have low work standards and conditions of employment in agriculture, thus depending on the underprivileged and the unfortunate at home and abroad to supply and replenish our seasonal and migratory work force? Or shall we do in agriculture what we have already done in other sectors of our economy – create honest-to-goodness jobs which will offer a decent living so that domestic workers, without being forced by dire necessity, will be willing to stay in agriculture and become a dependable labor supply?” Id.
We must empower farmworkers to bargain for better wages and conditions. A starting point would be to end to discriminatory employment laws that deprive farmworkers of occupational safety protections, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, and other labor standards that apply to other workers. Most important, we must help farmworkers organize to demand and win better treatment by their employers.
Some agricultural employers demand a new agricultural guestworker program. They prefer guestworkers on restricted temporary visas compared to immigrants and citizens, who may have the freedom to switch employers, challenge illegal conduct, join a labor union, and vote in elections that lead to policy changes. We already have the H-2A guestworker program. Many don’t want to use it because it has modest labor protections and government oversight. There is also a recent history of successful union organizing of H-2A guestworkers in North Carolina’s tobacco farms.
President Obama should issue a policy that allows the largest possible number of farmworkers and their family members to obtain immigration status and work authorization. Then Congress should act to grant access to a true immigration status leading to citizenship. Our challenge at Farmworker Justice is to help farmworkers gain access to any new program and help them organize to win a greater measure of justice in the fields and in their communities.