As leaders in Congress debate proposals for immigration reform, including the GOP’s stringent Secure the Border Act that recently passed in the House, they must confront this blind spot: First, recognize the critical role of migrant farm workers in our food networks; second, expand and modernize the temporary visa program to establish a clear path to citizenship for long-term workers.
It’s also critically important to establish safer working conditions, particularly given the rocketing number of child migrants who are now growing and serving the food we eat. Immigration restrictions during the Covid pandemic limited the typical flows of the migrant workforce, while also leading to an increase in child labor: Title 42 incentivized unaccompanied minors to come here alone because they were exempted from immediate expulsion. A quarter million kids under age 18 left their home countries over the past two years to seek refuge in the US, and the vast majority ended up tending crops, packing meat and serving fast food.
Lawmakers at the state and national level have an ethical obligation to pass laws that better protect the workers who feed us. Even if they lack the moral courage to do so, they should at least recognize that our economy depends on a stable food workforce. New restrictions on immigration at both the state and federal level will worsen the shortfalls in farm labor and further inflate already elevated food prices.
“Get ready to pay more at the grocery store” was one Florida farmer’s response to Governor Ron DeSantis’s new immigration laws, effective July 1, which are designed to limit the ability of undocumented immigrants to work and live in the state by imposing restrictions and penalties on the laborers themselves, and on their employers and health care providers. This deals a crushing blow to a workforce with a median taxed income of about $27,000 a year.
The crackdown comes as huge volumes of produce will need to be harvested in the coming months. In Florida, avocado and citrus trees need picking; tomatoes and watermelons are ripening in the fields. In California, strawberries, wine grapes and almonds are underway. In Georgia, it’s harvest time for onions and, soon, peaches. In Michigan and Washington, cherry and apple trees are growing heavy with fruit.
Last year, the farm value of fruits, tree nuts and vegetables produced in the US was about $50 billion , an amount that’s expected to reach $60 billion in the next decade — if there are workers available to support that growth. Government data shows that more than half of all farm workers in the US are undocumented immigrants. The growers and labor contractors I’ve spoken with say it’s far more, about three-quarters.
It’s work that most American-born workers won’t do, given how hot, buggy, chemical-laden, physically grueling and low-paying it is. I learned about these conditions in my conversations with Reyna Lopez, whose Mexican-born parents and community members have been growing American produce for generations. Lopez runs Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), an organization headquartered in Oregon that advocates for farmer rights and has helped craft state rules and national legislation.
The working conditions in Lopez’s region, recently hit by a scorching heat wave even before summer begins, have become dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that US farm workers are 20 times more likely to die from heat stroke than civilian workers overall. Farm hands are increasingly exposed to climate pressures that range from ice storms to wildfires, and suffer more chemical-related sickness and injury than any other workforce.
Efforts must be made at a state and national level to improve health and safety standards for laborers, and PCUN offers a great model: Lopez and her team worked with Oregon’s OSHA office in revising state rules to require cooling shelters, clean drinking water and heat- stroke education for farm workers, as well as better sanitary conditions and plans for medical care during health emergencies. Governors in every agricultural state should urge their labor officials to adopt such rules.
Lopez applauds the introduction of the Dignity Act this week by Representatives María Salazar, a Republican from Florida, and Democrat Veronica Escobar from Texas, which could help undocumented farmworkers stave off the looming threat of deportation. But even if it passes, it will offer only a first step towards a sustainable food workforce.
The bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the House in 2021 before stalling in the Senate, offers a ready framework for Congress to implement bold national reforms. The Modernization Act would overhaul the existing H2-A temporary visa program to establish a clear path to legalization for long-term migrant workers. The act should be updated to ensure that workers have portable visas so they aren’t beholden to a single employer and ensure fair pay.
Going forward, creating a sustainable food workforce will also require stronger protections for minors. A stunning analysis by the Food and Environment Reporting Network found that more than 75% of recent child labor violations were committed by food industry employers. The Department of Labor recently announced new initiatives that would improve child labor oversight and protection, increasing the fines employers pay for child labor violations as well as the budget for the Labor Department’s oversight and enforcement. These should be approved by Congress with all due haste.
Rather than making life even harder for the undocumented workers who play a critical role in our food economy, our lawmakers should be guaranteeing their safety. They should make it easier for farm laborers and their advocates to stop human rights abuses while ensuring the security of our food supply. The upshot is this: Our definition of “sustainable agriculture” should include fair and reasonable immigration laws that support a more secure food supply for our future.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
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