Mark Bittman’s column raises the important point that those who profess to care about “good” food must consider the structure and failings of our food system. This includes not only nutritional content and sustainability of production, but also the treatment of the people who plant and harvest the food for our tables.
There are about 2.5 million farmworkers across the country, at least half of them undocumented immigrants. These workers labor under difficult and dangerous conditions every day, vulnerable to weather, pesticide poisoning and employer abuse.
In New York State, for example, farmworker rights and protections lag significantly behind workers in every other sector. New York farmworkers do not have the right to bargain collectively, do not have access to overtime pay, and are not guaranteed a day of rest. Bills to address these basic rights have stalled for years in the New York State Senate.
The treatment of these workers is a great injustice in our food system and one that should be a concern of “foodies” everywhere. People who labor to produce our food should be treated with dignity and fairness.
Washington, June 26, 2014
The writers are, respectively, president of Farmworker Justice and the Robert F. Kennedy human rights laureate for 2012.
Today, President Obama announced that he will take executive action to reform our immigration system. The President’s remarks came after House Speaker Boehner told him that the House would not pursue a vote this year on much-needed immigration reform. This refusal to address our immigration crisis hurts our economy and the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, including 1 million or more farmworkers.
“Farmworker Justice commends the President’s commitment to take administrative action to reform our broken immigration system. Hundreds of thousands of farmworkers who labor to put food on our tables suffer each day because they are unable to secure authorized immigration status,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice. “We urge President Obama to act boldly and to provide affirmative relief for undocumented farmworkers and other undocumented immigrants with strong ties to the U.S.”
“The refusal of the Speaker to bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote hurts farmworkers, farm operators, our food system and our country. While it is now critical that the President take action, only comprehensive legislation will truly fix our immigration system. Speaker Boehner’s inaction is irresponsible and inhumane. Once again he has chosen to put politics over the needs of workers and our economy,” said Goldstein.
Comprehensive Reform Would Benefit His Agricultural-Dependent District
Today, House Republicans elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as their new majority leader, a position that gives him the power to bring long-stalled comprehensive immigration reform to the floor for a vote.
“Rep. McCarthy represents one of the most important agricultural areas of our country, which suffers under our broken immigration system,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice. “Farmworkers in his district contribute to our country and communities through their hard work cultivating and harvesting our fruits and vegetables and must be given the opportunity to earn a path to citizenship. Growers in his district depend on these aspiring Citizens.”
Immigration reform must include the agricultural stakeholder compromise, a tough-but-fair agreement that was designed to address the needs of both grower and farmworker interests. The compromise is included in the bipartisan Senate bill, S. 744 that passed almost one year ago, and is in the bipartisan House bill, HR 15. It provides a roadmap toward legal residency and citizenship for farmworkers and their families and creates a new agricultural guestworker system which includes both difficult concessions and important new protections. This legislation would help stabilize the agricultural industry in McCarthy’s district.
“As majority leader, Rep. McCarthy now has the power with Speaker John Boehner to bring immigration reform to the floor of the House. Over the past year, McCarthy has said that he is committed to resolving our immigration crisis. He must seize this opportunity to address our country’s demand for immigration reform,” said Goldstein.
On June 30th, President Obama announced that he plans to take executive action to reform our broken immigration system. The President’s remarks came after House Speaker Boehner told him that the House would not pursue a vote this year on much-needed immigration reform. Speaker Boehner reportedly expressed a desire to try to bring up immigration legislation at the beginning of 2015. Farmworker Justice’s statement on the President’s speech is available here.
The growers and other business groups haven’t given up on Congress yet. The Western Growers Association joined other business leaders for a press conference at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC this week to call on the House to act on immigration reform. However, Thursday Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) confirmed that Republican House leadership has said that the House will not take up his immigration legislation that includes a legalization program this year. The bill has not been filed but Diaz-Balart has discussed it with many Members of Congress and he claims that the bill had significant bipartisan support.
President Obama has not provided many specifics as to what form the administrative relief will take. Immigration advocates are pushing for the President to be bold in his actions and to provide broad affirmative relief that offers relief from deportation and work authorization to the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.
Farmworker Justice joins these voices in pressing for broad relief. We are advocating to ensure that undocumented farmworkers and their families are included in any affirmative programs and are not excluded due to their special circumstances. For example, if the program requires proof of recent stable employment in the U.S., seasonal job holder should not be excluded. In addition, many young single men are laboring to harvest our food and should be afforded relief along with those immigrants who have families in the U.S.
Farmworker Justice and its partners are preparing for implementation of any affirmative relief program that is announced. Farmworker communities tend to be in rural, under-resourced areas and have limited access to electronic media. Farmworkers may also face challenges proving their residence in the country and employment history as many live in employer-provided housing and are paid in cash.
Prior to his announcement, President Obama met with unions and advocacy groups to discuss the humanitarian crisis at the border. The President told the group that he would ask Congress to increase border enforcement resources and expedite the deportations of the unaccompanied children from Central America who have been crossing the border in high numbers. According to second-hand accounts, President Obama aims to send a message to the Central American families that children can’t simply just show up at the border and hope to be let in.
President Obama asked Congress for supplemental funding of more than $3.7 billion dollars for more detention facilities, judges, border security and more resources to Health and Human Services for housing and care for the children. Expedited removal, a speedier process to return undocumented immigrants at the border is currently not allowed for unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries. Unaccompanied minors are granted broader protections under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA). Many immigration, refugee and child advocates and religious groups have pushed back hard against the President, arguing that this is a refugee situation and that the law should not be changed. These children and families deserve protection from violence under U.S. and international law and that includes adequate due process. The Administration and Congress have been urged to focus on root causes of this migration, including criminal violence in home countries, economic consequences of trade policies, and our broken immigration system’s role in separating families.
The Obama Administration initially softened its tone on the issue of expedited removal, saying that it is looking to streamline the process of removal, not expedite removals. However, Republican leaders in both the Senate and the House are demanding changes to the law in order to pass the funding measure and Thursday Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said they would support such changes. However, some Democrats spoke out in opposition to making changes to the TVPRA, arguing that expedited removal reduces due process and would make it more likely for individuals to be returned home to violent situations when they are actually eligible to stay in the country. It remains to be seen exactly how Congress and the Administration will resolve this issue.
Many advocacy groups and lawmakers are also critical of the Administrations’ plans to increase detention facilities for children and families. They argue that alternatives to detention are more appropriate. Advocates are also urging the government to provide legal representation for these individuals. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council and other groups filed a lawsuit this week against the government for not providing counsel to children facing deportation hearings. Individuals in immigration proceedings are entitled to legal representation if they can afford it, but the government is not required to provide free representation. While the Administration has put some resources towards getting council for some children, demand for free or low-cost immigration attorneys greatly exceeds supply.
Your support enables Farmworker Justice to help farmworkers win a more just immigration system.
Yonny Castillo, 2014 NMSHSA Intern, contributed to this blog post.
Immigration is a critically important issue for farmworkers. Learn about current legislation proposals impacting farmworkers.
Learn about the history of guestworker programs, H-2A program for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B visa program.