For years, the U.S. has failed to pass into law protections for undocumented farm workers, which not only continues to leave them at risk in the fields and orchards, but also leaves them at ongoing risk of detention and deportation. Now, the federal government has apparently begun paying attention to the vital role these laborers play in our daily lives—sort of.
The New York Times reports undocumented workers like Nancy Silva, who works in the clementine groves of central California, are now “deemed by the federal government as ‘essential’ to the country” during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” she told the Times. But after even being deemed “essential,” farm workers are still shut out of important protections and guarantees.
Comprehensive immigration legislation passed by a sweeping majority in the Senate back in 2013 included a path to legalization for agricultural workers, but that bill was then stalled by House Republicans. Then this past December (though it feels like years ago), the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, historic legislation that would put hundreds of thousands of farm workers onto a path to legalization. That, in turn, was stalled by Senate Republicans.
Furthermore, being deemed “essential” doesn’t mean gaining vital protections, like guaranteed paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, financial assistance from the coronavirus stimulus packages—or even any protection from deportation. “The ‘essential work’ letters that many now carry are not a free pass from immigration authorities, who could still deport Ms. Silva and other undocumented field workers at any time,” the Times continued.
We know farm laborers have always been essential and skilled workers, and there’s a good chance that if fruits and veggies are accessible at your local store, they’ve first passed through the hands of an undocumented worker. But in order to truly respect them and their work, they need more than a letter calling them “essential” only because we’re worried about our food supply during a pandemic. They need full—and permanent—protections.
This also means protecting all undocumented workers, like housekeepers and nannies, who are also shut out of coronavirus relief that could help them sustain their families even though they work sustaining ours. "The last three weeks have been horrendous. I have suffered a lot because this has been a really difficult time," Ingrid, a housekeeper in Washington, D.C., said according to Newsweek. Like many other domestic workers, she’s seen clients cancel. "People need to understand that we are also part of this community," she said. "We also have families and children."
“Farmworkers and their work are valuable,” Justice for Migrant Women’s Mónica Ramírez recently wrote at Prism. “Just like all workers, they should be treated with dignity, respect, and care at all times. During this time when lives are on the line and measures are being taken to ensure that workers across industries are being taken care of, farmworkers should also be cared for physically, mentally, and financially. As we face a new normal, we have the opportunity to right historical wrongs that have left whole groups of people at risk of a host of inequities and problems. Now is the time to cure some of the issues confronting farmworkers for their good, and for the good of all of us.”
”Make no mistake, farmworkers—who ~75% are undocumented—have and always will be ‘essential workers,’” tweeted Latino Victory Project. “It's past time they are treated as such, not just during a pandemic.”