How often do you think about the working conditions of the people who pick the fruit and vegetables you eat? And how many acres of farmland have gone unharvested for lack of workers, thanks to fear of increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement?
Last year when proposing the AgJOBS bill, which would legalize undocumented farmworkers, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recalled that between 2007 and 2008, a total of 1.56 million acres of farmland in the United States fell out of use. American farmers transferred 84,155 acres of production—and, with them, 22,285 jobs—to México in order to stay in business.
The workers who have stayed here—documented and undocumented alike—suffer under conditions that serve as daily reminders of why the fight started by César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and so many others continues.
Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the Farmworkers Justice Fund, wrote that in 2010 the United States will export $5.7 million in fresh fruits and vegetables, compared with $5.4 million in exports in 2009, and $4.471 million in 2008. “Needless to say, farmworkers' wages and benefits during the period 2007 to 2010 will not have come close to rising 27.5 percent in value,” said Goldstein.
AgJOBS formed part of the failed 2007 immigration reform bill and will be integrated into whatever plan is ultimately proposed in 2010, although there have been attempts to pass it as an independent piece of legislation.
From 2007 to today, Goldstein said, “farmers have felt the effects of intensified immigration enforcement policies in agriculture, and that’s resulted in growing interest in legalization.”
Arturo Rodríguez, president of United Farm Workers (UFW), said that every day that passes without legalization affects not only workers but the entire agricultural industry, and by extension, the consumer.
“Seventy percent of farmworkers are undocumented. The surge in enforcement has created fear, and this fear has ensured there aren’t enough people for the harvest,” he pointed out.
In the words of Senator Feinstein: “The central issue here is not immigration. It’s about protecting and preserving the American economy.”
To that, I would add the guarantee that such difficult and necessary labor receives the just and humane treatment it deserves.
Farm workers, their immigration status, and their living conditions have been frequent topics of controversy since the beginning of the 20th century, and farmers and the United States government have shown an inclination to use foreign labor when it is convenient for them.
In 1917, immigration laws left Mexican peasants who immigrated to the United States during the Mexican Revolution in a state of irregularity.
During World War I, farmers asked the Department of Labor not to impose immigration restrictions on Mexican workers until the end of the war.
In 1929, with the onslaught of the Great Depression, 500,000 Mexican nationals and their U.S.-born children were repatriated to México. A large part of those who were deported had worked in rural regions of the Southeast.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States intervened in World War II, generating a need for manual labor that brought the United States and Mexican governments to sign the controversial Bracero Program in 1942.
Close to 5 million Mexican workers came to the United States between 1942 and 1964.
Nonetheless, the immigration law of 1952 created the Guest Worker Program, which granted H-2 visas to farm workers coming from countries other than México. The law included the “Texas Proviso,” which protected farmers from legal penalties for employing undocumented workers.
In the middle of the economic boom that followed the war, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered “Operation Wetback”, which expelled 1.5 million Mexican nationals from the United States. It is estimated that 60 percent of those deported in 1954 were legal residents.
After the Bracero Program ended in 1964, the Guest Worker Program was extended to Mexican workers.
In the decades that followed, the activist César Chávez, founder of the National Farm Workers Association (which later became the UFW), led marches, parades, strikes, boycotts and hunger strikes in defense of the farm laborers who continue to face deprivation today. Chávez was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
IRCA, the 1986 immigration law, legalized more than 1 million farmworkers under the Special Agricultural Workers (SAW) program.
But the number of undocumented farmworkers rose significantly in the decade that followed.
In 1998, when AgJOBS was first proposed, only 22,676 workers came to the United States thanks to H-2A visas.
The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) reported that during the period from 2005 to 2007, 75 percent of farmworkers were born outside the U.S. 52 percent were undocumented.
According to the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), the H2-A visa program covers only 5% of the agricultural workforce. 78, 089 H2-A visas were issued in 2007, while farmers hire 900,000 workers each year.
AgJOBS was reintroduced in Congress, with little variation, during the 2003-04, 2005-06 and 2007-08 sessions.
The most recent version was proposed in May of this year. The Senate legislation, S.1038, has 20 cosponsors, while in the House of Representatives the bill (H.R. 2414) has 56 coauthors.
The plan, prepared by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), would legalize an estimated 500,000 undocumented workers.
The debate over legalizing farm workers has always been marked by the controversial question of labor conditions and migrants’ lives, health and housing.
But this time, labor organization and farmers are in agreement that passing an AgJOBS bill is a shared necessity.
Maribel Hasting is a Senior Advisor for América’s Voice. Rafael Prieto Zartha contributed to this article.