Last month, advocates held a car caravan and drove past Watsonville, California’s farming fields to thank farm workers for their essential labor during the novel coronavirus pandemic, saying ”Next time you see someone in the farms, working like this in the ranches, in the campos, honk your horn, honk your horn, let them know you are so thankful for them because without them, no hay vida—without them, there’s no life.”
It’s important we show our appreciation for essential workers, like undocumented farm laborers and meatpacking plant workers, but at the same time, our nation can do so much more. We should start thanking essential workers who lack legal status by putting them on a path to citizenship.
“There is some precedent for providing these workers with protections and a path to citizenship,” Resilience Force director Saket Soni and National Immigration Law Center director Marielena Hincapie write on CNN. “Former President Ronald Reagan agreed to legalize some immigrant farmworkers in 1986, recognizing their importance to ensuring the country's food supply.”
House Democrats have more recently shown progress is possible, last December passing historic legislation that would put hundreds of thousands of farm workers onto a path to legalization by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 260 to 165. The legislation, introduced by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington last fall, marked the first time in decades that the House had passed an agricultural labor immigration bill, advocates said.
“But 1986 wasn't the only time America used the promise of immigration status (or expedited citizenship) to protect vital national interests and to meet national emergencies,” Soni and Hincapie continued. “People who serve in the military are eligible for expedited citizenship, while foreign nationals who serve as employees of the US government, such as the Peace Corps and embassy staff, can become permanent residents after 15 years of service.”
Jodi Ziesemer and Melissa Chua of the New York Legal Assistance Group’s Immigrant Protection Unit made a similar argument in their NY Daily News op-ed, writing “Every night at 7 p.m. in New York City, we clap and make noise for essential and frontline workers. In 2017, more than 15% of the health-care labor force were immigrants, and a larger percentage are home health aides, cleaning and support staff, yet immigrant communities continue to be under attack … We can show appreciation for immigrants and the important ways they are keeping us safe, healthy and fed, by allowing them to continue to work and by providing clear pathways to citizenship.”
“The U.S. has long had special protections and paths to lawful status for immigrants who serve in our military during ‘periods of hostility,’” they continue. “Although we are now fighting a very different enemy, the rationale for invoking such an exceptional law is the same. Our essential immigrant workers are putting their lives on the line to protect and serve our communities.”
Giving undocumented laborers our thanks means ensuring they have the workplace protections they need all the time, not just during a pandemic. Giving undocumented laborers our thanks should also mean making sure their future here is secure no matter who is president. “I know that we are doing important work that is feeding the rest of the country,” Teresa, an undocumented farm worker from central California, told BuzzFeed News last month. “There are a lot of workers in the field. We are essential workers that this country needs.”