Will the Immigration Bill Help Migrant Farmworkers?

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A field worker empties a bucket of vidalia onions into a waiting truck in Lyons, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100005571030791 Walter White

    Only White countries (countries of European origin and their derivatives) are required to take in millions of immigrants from the “developing world” and assimilate and integrate with them. Israel, Kuwait, South Korea, and Japan are not required to do this. This is genocide, as ONLY White countries, communities, and institutions are required to force blend themselves until “diverse” (read: no more White people). Mass immigration into White countries and ONLY White countries is part of a program of genocide.

  • http://www.you-read-it-here-first.com/ John Bailo

    NAFTA has to be one of the greatest human rights tragedies of the last century. 20 million people were thrown off the land with no source of income and had to scale barbed wire fences, ford a river and run under the cover of night from shotguns and dogs to end up living in poverty at sub-minimum wages, all the while risking deportation and imprisonment. Why has the UN not ever condemned NAFTA, or the politicians in power back in the mid-1990s, for this horror story, one that dwarfed so many others in scale and harshness?

  • Arturo Cortez

    On this the 19th day of July, 2013
    By Arturo Cortez
    “Immigration Reform”
    The arrogance of confidence in general public perception of what it is we will be,
    I suppose, like many of you too wake up to coffee and daily news stories on the net. Not till recently did I realize that I too can see the merit in Republican Politics of today. I as a centralist in political ideology tend to weight things as the center pillar, balancing not from right to left, but rather up or down on either side these days.
    My face along with my writings on social media I hope reflects a central left political perspective, for now. I however, do feel as though that the present Republican Party is denying the American democratic voter fair and unequal political leadership in the form of community representation, certainly redefining the independent conservative common sense individualistic community leaders of decades pasted in Republican American politics. Republican Party type politics today appears to only represent the will of a corporate minority of the dollar kind in order to establish political laws and rules over humanity of man kind in Congress of today.
    So it is that Si Se Puede cyber warrior of to day have not allowed, and will not allow the Republican Party competitive political traction this election year or any year there after so long as the Republican US colonial political culture fails to merit humanity with it’s own political creation by and for the human people of the Republic.
    I now encouraged my Si se Puede political warriors to continue to deny the Republican party political traction at a local grass root level. Our goal is simple, “do not allow any incumbent Republican up for re-elect at a local level the opportunity to lead at a state or at a nation wide level, to lead is not a right but a privilege gained by honorable men and women of social honorable integrity and character by way of a democratic human vote. These Republican leaders must not gain political traction in our communities this election cycle. Republican leaders must learn that this election is not about, Hispanics, but Americans in America, that it is not about Immigrates but rather about defining our national identity by way of a modern day comprehensive immigration reform bill for the immigrant American slave community of today’s flawed immigration US policies. Simply put because it is the American right thing to do for our nation as a reflection of American moral social virtue of who we are as a people and not as a Republican political party of today.
    Si se puede will stand with any Republican or Democrat leader willing to stand with us to add an amendment to improve on the Senate immigration bill by making citizenship a five year or less immigrant path to US citizenship rather the 13 years of taxation with out representation. This act alone will make this immigration bill a part of Republican American history to be admired by generations of Americans to come. Now is our time, and we are the people of the Republic whereas, we are not asking but demanding We are not naive to know that we won the re-elect of President Barack Obama and I advise the President that now is the time to spend political capital on historical bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform by taking proactive Presidential political action establishing congressional bipartisan bridge building efforts of political cooperation to insure honor, quality, and integrity with in this Comprehensive Immigration Bill for our nation.
    My army of centralist Si se Puede politic warriors are now battle tested and ready to rock and roll on this next election. We will change the colonial Republican political culture in Washington today regardless of the immigration out come to say the least, for tomorrow. This political realist of today is well aware that when a political party won’t lead for humanity who put them in political leadership simply because of corporate capitalist covenant, and the pigment color of our President’s skin, rather then the issues of the people of the Republic, then and only then must the people of the republic drive another nail in the Republican coffin, by not allowing the Republican party to lead. It is we the American people that our Republic is about, we must not give the Republican Party the right to represent our vote.
    Corporate America must go back to what made our country the greatest economy in the world, “economic corporate competition,” and not milking humanity out of the US government by way of corporate welfare guaranties by Republican legislators in the form of political legislation. It is our American fore fathers who created our American constitution of and for all the American people of human kind; not corporations of the dollar kind. Whereas, government of the people, is not of corporate profit, but rather of quality of life for human American of man kind as a covenant of a people and their government, “Que viva mi gente,

  • http://www.squidoo.com/graceonline Kathryn Grace

    Thank you for this informative piece. Came at just the right time.

  • http://24ahead.com/ 24AheadDotCom

    Aren’t you missing something? Namely, the thoughts of anyone who’d disagree with the ideas above?

    For instance, if NAFTA is causing problems, why not fix or scrap it? Instead, the policy suggested above is to “solve” a NAFTA problem by making things worse. Two bad policies don’t make a good policy.

    The course of action Lauren Feeney and Robert Willis suggest above is the opposite of what Cesar Chavez did. Lauren Feeney and Robert Willis would give growers all the labor they want. Cesar Chavez was a strong opponent of illegal immigration and he realized that fewer workers meant higher wages under better conditions.

    On the other hand, Lauren Feeney and Robert Willis support more workers, which means lower wages under worse conditions. Curious, no?

  • ShyJohn On Harp

    There has been a trend, in business to de regulate themselves enough to keep what amounts to slave labor. There are several industries involved; The Temp industry, the privatized prison industry, the agri-business, garment workers, restaurant workers, housekeepers…and there goes the rest of industry. Stop slavery! Pay workers a LIVING WAGE!! Give respect, and receive back loyalty, dedication, and gratitude. Hire for full time hours.