Immigrant farmworkers deserve better

My grandfather passed away eight years ago, and I miss him tremendously. Recently, as my aunt and I shared stories about our childhoods and I recalled eating fresh cherries and other fruit from the trees in my grandparents’ backyard. At the time I didn’t realize it but it was in my family roots to grow food. Also, I didn’t realize the value of real food. My grandfather is Chicano, and his mother migrated to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico’s major apple-growing region, which also produces peaches and cherries. My aunt told me that when my grandfather was a child, he and his siblings used to spend their days in fields “topping beets.” The serendipity of it all struck me, as the literal translation of his last name is “garden.”

Regardless of religion, many of us practice rituals to show gratitude for the food we eat without needing to know where it came from (unless you have a connection to farming or gardening). We’re grateful for the pleasure it brings, its preparation, grateful to share the food with our families and that we had the money to go to the grocery store in the first place — but we’re a lot less conscious of the demanding, back-breaking, early-rising labor it takes to work the fields that feed the country. There’s even less understanding of the injustices suffered by undocumented farm workers and how integral their labor is to our entire food system, or the heavy toll it takes on their health and their families.

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, said in a 2019 statement, “Our nation’s immigration system is broken and results in great unfairness, as over one-half of the 2.4 million people who labor on our farms and ranches to feed us are undocumented immigrants.”

[pullquote-1] Actually, if you’re in the owner class, you likely don’t see the system as broken. Exploitation of labor is foundational to the structure of the United States, and began in the country’s nascent years, with slavery. Conversation about undocumented labor often ends as a hate-filled, anti-immigration argument, with many people ignorant of the fact that if it weren’t for our undocumented workforce, our entire food system would shut down.

During World War II, shortages of casual labor led to establishment of the Bracero Program, which encouraged Mexicans to work temporarily in fields and on railroads. The program, which often subjected migrant workers to wage theft and deplorable living and working conditions, ended in 1964, largely because of the work of members of the United Farm Workers labor union, notably Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong, as well as leading community organizers Bert Corona and Ernesto Galarza. But 56 years later, our lack of appreciation for the hands that feed us hasn’t changed much; former Bracero workers are still fighting for the wages they were owed when they returned to Mexico in 1964, and contemporary migrant workers deal with labor abuse issues including low and unpaid wages or theft, inhumane treatment, on-the-job injuries, occupational hazards (pesticides, dehydration, heatstroke), sexual harassment and discrimination, and more.

When Congress passed the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, it seemed like a big win, giving undocumented workers a path to legal residency, fairer wages and better working conditions. But others feel it’s just a compromise that solidifies indentured servitude. Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, an independent farmworker union, said they could not “in good conscience” support the legislation because, “We believe it is a Trojan horse for future bargaining over immigration reform.”

Mexican labor, from the Bracero Program to today, has always comprised the majority of the farm workforce because we can get it for cheap. Or as Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante contends, U.S. immigration policy has historically been centered on the price regulation of Mexican labor.

Exploitation to grow agribusiness profit margins should not come at a cost to those who work hard to feed us.