Farmworkers do backbreaking work, laboring under the hot sun to provide the most essential service — harvesting the fruits and vegetables that nourish the nation. And what do they get in return? Poverty wages, deplorable working conditions and rampant abuse, exacerbated by the fact that most are undocumented immigrants with little recourse. Even as the nation debates immigration reform, little attention has been paid to the plight of migrant farmworkers. But the Senate’s proposed immigration bill does offer a glimmer of hope. We spoke to Robert Willis, a labor attorney specializing in justice for migrant workers who participated in negotiating the Senate bill’s farmworker provisions, to learn more about the problems with the current system and the compromises in the bill.
Lauren Feeney: How does our broken immigration system affect working conditions for farmworkers?
Robert Willis: The overwhelming majority of the farmworkers who harvest the food we eat and agricultural products we use are undocumented. Their status allows unscrupulous employers to obtain a competitive advantage over employers who only employ citizens, lawful permanent residents or authorized guestworkers. It also allows those same unscrupulous employers to provide illegal and substandard wages and working conditions for undocumented workers, who lack access to any legal or collective means to combat those conditions. For example, even though many federal employment laws theoretically cover undocumented workers, an undocumented worker literally cannot obtain entry into a U.S. Courthouse to testify in a federal court proceeding because that worker does not possess the type of photo identification required to enter the building.
NAFTA’s subsidization of agricultural products in the U.S. has had a destructive effect on people who once made ends meet through the subsistence agriculture that used to abound in rural Mexico and other countries to the south, causing a large migration northward into this country in an inevitable effort by those southern peoples to find a means to earn a living and support their families. At the same time, because of population and demographic changes, the number of citizen and legal permanent resident workers available and interested in manual labor has not kept up with employer demand. In some cases, employers have discriminated against U.S. workers in favor of undocumented workers or unorganized guest workers because of the relative advantages in labor control and discipline. Meanwhile, the huge majority of workers crossing our borders from the south have migrated northward without proper legal authority because our broken immigration system has failed to provide reasonable access to the farm labor markets in this country for both those migrating workers and the employers who want to hire them.
This situation has festered for almost 20 years. It is time for more than a million undocumented farmworkers to come out of the shadows and be recognized both as human beings and for the contribution that they have made and can continue to make to this country’s economy.
Feeney: What’s the problem with the current guest worker program for agricultural workers, known as the H-2A visa?
Willis: As with many things, it depends upon your point of view. For workers, the principal problems stem from the fact that they are required to work for a single employer with no option to seek other work if their employer mistreats them or provides substandard or illegal working conditions. They have been subject to extreme abuses by labor recruiters operating in countries south of the U.S., they have no legal right to organize or engage in concerted activity to improve their working conditions, and they are excluded from one of the major federal laws that protect all other migrant farmworkers – the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.
Agricultural employers have their own set of problems with the program, including the wage rate they are required to pay H-2A workers, the U.S. Department of Labor’s direct involvement in determining whether an employer’s use of H-2A workers will adversely affect the wages and working conditions afforded to similarly situated U.S. workers, and the amount of paperwork involved in obtaining the government’s permission to employ foreign workers with temporary H-2A visas.
Feeney: What does the new immigration bill have to say about farmworkers?
Willis: The new immigration bill the Senate has passed allows H-2A and undocumented workers who can show that they worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in the two years immediately preceding December 31, 2012, to obtain a “blue card,” which would qualify them for continued lawful employment solely in agriculture. Under the Senate bill, those blue card workers would then be eligible for legal permanent resident status in three to five years.
As temporary workers become permanent residents, the temporary workforce will be depleted. The bill recognizes that there will still be a need for temporary workers to fill short-term harvest jobs which legalized workers wouldn’t want to fill because they now have to support their families year round in the U.S. and are able to seek full-time employment. The Senate bill addresses this need by providing for a streamlined version of the H-2A program known as the W visa, which directly addresses all the problems that employers have with the current H-2A program that I mentioned earlier. It also would cover all farmworkers who obtain either temporary or permanent legal status under the Agricultural Worker Protection Act. Unfortunately, it does not address the issue of a legal right to organize, and it still restricts new visas to workers fortunate enough to have a job offer.
Feeney: How do workers and their advocates feel about the provisions? What about farm owners?
Willis: The provisions of the Senate bill are the result of intense and lengthy negotiations between agricultural employers and worker advocates from the three major farmworker unions (FLOC, UFW, and PCUN), sponsored by Senators Feinstein, Hatch, Bennett and Rubio. While there are elements that many farmworker advocates don’t like, the bill would provide for a process by which more than a million farmworkers can earn legal status and, at the same time, at least temporarily meet employer demand for agricultural workers. It also includes a mechanism to provide for an orderly and adequate labor supply in the future.
Because agricultural employers directly participated in all of the compromises that are part of the Senate bill, we hoped they would refrain from attempting to obtain more favorable provisions from conservatives in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, that did not occur. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has sponsored a separate farmworker bill that blocks any path to citizenship.
Feeney: What can people do to help ensure that immigration reform passes — with the necessary protections for farmworkers?
Willis: Find out the position of your senators and representatives with respect to immigration reform. If they are for the Senate bill, thank them and urge them to continue to support it. If they are against it, ask them why they are against comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform, and why the House of Representatives won’t even allow a vote on the Senate’s version of the bill.