FJ Blog

Friday, 13 June 2014

Farmworkers Arrested in Civil Disobedience

Immigration reform advocates continue to engage in demonstrations and civil disobedience actions calling on House Republican Leadership to allow a vote on immigration legislation. On Wednesday, the UFW, Virginia Organizing and FIRM youth activists held a civil disobedience action in front of the offices of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), soon to be former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Seventeen people were arrested, including UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, three UFW farmworkers and youth as young as 12-years-old, as well as other supporters of immigration reform. College interns from the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (the interns are former migrant and seasonal head start graduates from farmworker families) participated in the rally and lobby visits, asking Members to call on Speaker Boehner bring immigration reform to a vote before the August recess. This action follows on the heels of civil disobediences in 28 local district offices last week organized by the UFW and other immigration groups around the country. 

More actions will take place in the weeks leading to the August recess. This coming Saturday, June 14, the People's Movement Assembly addressing detention, deportation, and resistance will convene in Tacoma, Washington. A rally will follow to the Northwest Detention Center where immigrant detainees were on a hunger strike this past spring in protest of deportations and poor conditions in the privately-run facility, including wages of $1 per day for detainees’ labor. A recent Seattle Times editorial calls for an increase in alternatives to detention for immigrant detainees.

The House, Politics and Immigration Reform

By now most readers are probably aware that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary election to Tea Party challenger David Brat. Immigration reform had become an issue in the campaign, with Brat accusing Cantor of supporting amnesty and Cantor pushing back with the claim that he had blocked the Senate “amnesty” bill. Some commentators have said that Cantor’s loss could harm prospects for immigration reform if it increases other Republican Members’ fear of the minority right-wing of the party that opposes reform. Other commentators, however, have pointed out that Cantor was no champion of immigration reform and that those Republicans who have been outspoken in their support of immigration reform, such as Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) and Rep. Renee Ellmers (NC), easily beat anti-immigration reform primary challengers. Supporting this view are polls that show that the primary voters in Cantor’s Virginia district were not motivated by immigration reform, but by other issues. A poll by Americans for a Conservative Direction indicated that the vast majority of voters in Cantor’s district support immigration reform and that Cantor’s loss was due to, among other reasons, a perception that Cantor was more focused on national politics than local needs. The poll found that 72% of those who voted in the GOP primary support the substance of comprehensive immigration reform, including 69% of Brat voters. 

Following his loss, Cantor resigned as Majority Leader, which means that House Republicans will be focused on electing a new Majority Leader over the next week. Currently, the only candidate is House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents a heavily agricultural district that is 35 percent Latino. Despite his constituency and numerous actions by activists, including the UFW, McCarthy has not yet taken a strong positions calling for meaningful immigration reform. In a Think Progress article addressing this issue, Giev Kashkooli, the strategic campaigns director of UFW, captured the essential question: 

“The question for Congressman McCarthy is whether he will step up and take a leadership role in scheduling a vote on immigration reform that would invigorate the Bakersfield economy, hold abusive employers accountable, and lift farm workers out of the shadows; or will he continue ceding power to hateful extremists in the House Republican Conference to the peril of the people he represents?”

McCarthy should heed the call of his district’s need for immigration reform, which is strongly supported by both Republicans and Democrats nation-wide. This week, released the results of new polls on immigration reform conducted in collaboration with ten prominent Republican polling firms. The polling found that Republicans overwhelmingly support passing comprehensive immigration reform that specifically includes a pathway to citizenship along with other provisions similar to the Senate bill. A recent poll by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute also found that the majority of Americans in both parties support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Failed House Effort to Limit Deportations 

There was one failed effort to address the broken immigration system this week. On Wednesday, Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) offered an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations Act in the House Appropriations Committee. The amendment would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from using funds to deport the parents of U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children who do not pose a threat to the country. The amendment failed by a vote of 23-26. Two Republicans joined Democrats to vote in favor of the amendment, Reps. Valadao (R-CA) and Diaz-Balart (R-FL), who are both outspoken in favor of immigration reform. 

Humanitarian Crisis at the Border

There has been a recent surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border into the United States from Mexico. Since October 1, 47,017 children have been caught crossing the Southern border without their parents, up 92% from last year. More recent waves have included some mothers with small children as well. In addition to poverty, many of these individuals are fleeing drug cartels and gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The surge has overwhelmed the capacity of U.S. Customs & Border Protection and the Department of Health & Human Services. These agencies must process, house and care for these children until there is a review for immigration relief eligibility or a successful reunification with family members in the U.S. pending further immigration proceedings. President Obama has called the situation a humanitarian crisis and called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security to set up an interagency task-force to manage the situation. The surge is expected to continue and the White House has asked Congress for an extra $1.4 billion in next years’ budget to handle the migrants.

A factsheet on unaccompanied minors by the Jesuits and the Washington Office on Latin America is available here.

*Correction: Last week’s update erroneously reported that Rep. King’s amendment would provide $5 million for the investigation of the Department of Justice. Instead, the $5 million would go to the Department of Justice to be used to investigate the Department of Homeland Securities’ use of prosecutorial discretion.

by Megan Horn
(0 total comments)
Saturday, 07 June 2014

DACA Renewal Process Open

Yesterday, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced the renewal process for DACA recipients, including a new form for renewals and new applications, new form instructions and updated FAQs. The DACA initiative began almost two years ago and so far more than half a million individuals have received DACA, freeing them from the fear of deportation and enabling them to participate in and contribute more fully to their communities. USCIS is encouraging participants to file their renewal applications approximately 120 days or four months in advance of the expiration date and no more than 150 days. The first DACA recipients should begin the renewal process promptly as their work authorization and deferred action status will expire in September. Farmworker Justice is pleased that DHS has taken steps to ensure the continuation of this important initiative and we appreciate their interest in helping farmworker communities learn about DACA and its requirements. Even as we applaud this important renewal process, we note its limitations. Farmworker Justice believes DACA recipients and other aspiring Americans deserve more than just a deferral of deportation and we will continue to call on Members of the House of Representatives to do their jobs by passing immigration reform legislation that includes a path to citizenship. We will also continue working with DHS to address the unique challenges farmworkers and their families face and to shape broad administrative relief programs.

Legislation and Administrative Action

Meanwhile, last week, President Obama announced that he would hold off on executive action related to immigration for the next couple of months in order give the House time to act. The President expressed concern that unilateral action would anger Republicans and provide an excuse for the House not to pass immigration reform. As part of this decision, the President directed Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to delay the release of the results of his review of the deportation system, which was expected to include a revised enforcement priorities memo. The Department of Defense also delayed its plans to allow DACA participants to serve in the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program (a program for immigrants with particular skill-sets such as a medical license or certain language abilities) if they are qualified and accepted. However, DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol did not refrain from releasing a scathing report on the agency’s use of force as well as an updated use-of-force policy handbook aimed at addressing criticisms in the report.

And the question everyone is asking—what is the likelihood that the House will take up immigration reform? While there are many views and no clear answer yet, there is still a possibility that the House could act. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R- FL) told CQ Roll Call that he is still working on getting Republicans to support passing immigration reform in a step-by-step manner. 

“Every day I’m getting more and more Republicans — conservatives — who are frankly approaching me saying, ‘How do we move forward?’ I feel very very confident that a majority — a strong majority — of Republicans want to finally tackle this system that everyone understands is broken — with some caveats,” he said in a phone interview. “Republicans are insisting that we take this step-by-step.”

Yet the only action in the House on immigration reform is not positive. Soon after the House refused to allow a vote on Rep. Denham’s ENLIST amendment that would allow certain young undocumented immigrants to serve in the military, Rep. King (R-IA) was allowed to offer an anti-immigrant amendment. The amendment, which would provide $5 million to fund the investigation of the Department of Justice’s use of discretion in immigration enforcement, passed the House by a vote of 218-193. This is the second time that Rep. King has been allowed a vote on his anti-immigrant measures. A year ago today, the House passed King’s amendment to defund DACA. Neither of these measures is likely to pass the Senate.

Immigration reform advocates around the country continue to pressure the House to act. This week, advocates held civil disobedience actions in 22 Republican House Members’ offices to call on them to ask Speaker Boehner to bring an immigration reform bill to a vote before the August recess. America’s Voice reported that the offices of Reps. David Valadao (R-CA), Jeff Denham (R-CA), Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Doc Hastings (R-WA) promised to call on Speaker Boehner to bring immigration reform to a vote. Other Members were not receptive to the actions, resulting in the arrests of some protesters. 

Farmworkers are facing an urgent immigration crisis that is tearing apart their families and communities and depriving them of a voice in the workplace. A recent NPR story described how not much has changed since 1960 when Edward R. Murrow documented the poor living and working conditions of farmworkers in “Harvest of Shame.” Now is the time for conditions to change. Passing comprehensive immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship is the first step to empowering farmworkers to improve their wages and working conditions.

Abuse in and of the H-2A Program

While the H-2A program is intended to be used only when growers cannot find domestic workers, some employers use it to displace their local workforce. Employers who use the H-2A program often come to prefer H-2A workers over domestic workers due to the tendency of H-2A workers to work to the limits of human endurance to keep their employer happy (remember, they are tied to their employer by their visa so they must leave the country if they lose their job). Other factors leading to a preference for H-2A workers include tax breaks and the ability to handpick an ideal demographic for their workforce. In one recent example in which Farmworker Justice was co-counsel, the employer sought to displace a domestic workforce of 400-500 workers after the workers formed an organization last summer, “Familias Unidas Por la Justicia” (Families United for Justice), in order to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. The employer filed an application for over 400 H-2A workers despite letters from the workers stating that they were ready and willing to work. In a victory this week, the Washington State berry grower Sakuma Brothers Farms withdrew its application for H-2A “guest workers.”

Another settlement this week illustrates the abuses inherent in the H-2A program. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a settlement agreement with four Hawaii farms who agreed to pay $2.4 million to 500 former Thai H-2A agricultural workers to resolve claims of a pattern or practice of national origin and race discrimination (litigation is still ongoing with Global Horizons and one other farm). The case illustrates the rampant abuse in the H-2A program: the H-2A “guestworkers” were placed in a situation of debt bondage due to high recruitment fees and suffered denial or delay of pay, denial of adequate food and water, and monitoring of their movements and confiscation of their passports. Even with the protections in the H-2A program, many abuses occur, demonstrating the need for stronger protections for both US workers and H-2A “guestworkers.”

Farmworker Justice applauds the EEOC’s success in achieving some justice for these workers. This case serves as an important reminder that guestworker programs must include strong and meaningful protections for domestic and internationally recruited workers. The Senate and House’s comprehensive immigration reform bills, S.744 and H.R. 15, contain important protections to curb international labor recruitment abuses, which occur across visa programs. The agricultural stakeholder agreement’s new visa program represents a true compromise and includes both important new protections and difficult concessions. Included in the protections is coverage of “guest workers” under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the main law that protects farmworkers. Additionally, some workers would have portable visas, allowing them to move from one job to another. On the other hand, the compromise also includes the loss of long-standing H-2A protections such as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate and the DOL certification process. We hope that the stabilization of the farm labor force provided by the path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers combined with new protections for agricultural guestworkers will greatly reduce some of the many abuses of “guestworkers” and domestic farmworkers alike.

by Megan Horn
(0 total comments)
Wednesday, 04 June 2014

Confronted with an escalating labor dispute, mounting federal government scrutiny, and a state court restraining order aimed at protecting domestic workers, Washington State berry grower Sakuma Brothers Farms has withdrawn its controversial application seeking authorization to employ foreign workers under the federal H-2A temporary agricultural “guestworker” program. Sakuma’s application had requested approval to hire as many as 438 H-2A workers to harvest its berries this season, to effectively replace the domestic workforce that the company had employed for the past several decades.

Sakuma’s now-abandoned H-2A strategy was a response to efforts begun last year by its domestic workers to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. The domestic workers, organized as “Familias Unidas Por la Justicia” (Families United for Justice), negotiated some modest improvements, but Sakuma failed to honor its agreements, and a series of strikes and work stoppages punctuated last year’s berry harvest season.

In support of the Familias Unidas workers’ struggle, Farmworker Justice represented the workers in administrative proceedings before the U.S. Department of Labor, relating to Sakuma’s H-2A application. In these procedings, Farmworker Justice urged the DOL not to approve Sakuma’s H-2A application based on the company’s violation of basic H-2A program requirements. Critically, Sakuma’s application violated one of the program’s fundamental guarantees: employers may use H-2A guest workers only if it can demonstrate that there is a shortage of domestic workers available to do the jobs. Although more than 460 Familias Unidas workers are ready and willing to return to work this season, Sakuma attempted to deny employment to workers who participated in strikes last year. With the pro bono legal assistance of Seattle law firm Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP, Familias Unidas secured a state court restraining order prohibiting Sakuma from retaliating or discriminating against workers who engaged in worker organizing activities.

Sakuma’s withdrawal of its H-2A application came as no surprise, given the rigorous administrative review by the DOL and the state court’s ruling that ordered Sakuma to stop retaliating against the Familias Unidas workers. Farmworker Justice welcomes Sakuma’s decision to withdraw. It remains to be seen, however, whether and to what extent the company will rehire the Familias Unidas workers and refrain from retaliation. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

by Nicholas Marritz
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