California Sen. Alex Padilla during a Senate hearing on the vital role of immigrant farmworkers called it “fundamentally wrong” for the federal government to deem undocumented immigrant laborers essential, “yet deny them legal protections and status at the same time.” But that’s precisely what we’ve done throughout the pandemic—and that needs to change, farmworkers, their advocates, and lawmakers urged throughout the hearing.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t just the United States government, let’s be clear about this—Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security deemed farmworkers essential workers. Think about what that means,” Padilla said. “Formal recognition by the federal government that farmworkers, regardless of immigration status, are critical to our nation, critical to the food supply, critical to our economy. We can’t live without them.”
Padilla said during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday that as many as 75% of farmworkers in California lack legal status. Laborers who were already facing the danger of deportation then also had to face danger to their very lives, as the novel coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the nation last year. Padilla said that these workers then faced the brunt of human costs.
“Nearly 600,000 farmworkers have contracted COVID-19 and the food and agriculture workers in California I know have experienced the highest ‘excess mortality’ during the pandemic, with a 39% increase compared to previous years. For Latinos specifically, the mortality increase reached 59%,” he said. Farmworkers have since had to endure extreme temperatures while working. While articles have mentioned damaged crops, some have neglected to mention the people harvesting those crops. “At no point do we stop working,” Texas farmworker Alejandra said last month.
Present at Wednesday’s hearing were a number of farmworkers (United Farm Workers noted they and their family members had collectively hundreds of years in agriculture), along with UFW President Emeritus Arturo Rodriguez.
Rodriguez testified during the hearing that farmworkers throughout the pandemic “continued working, they showed up every day, they made sure our crops production continued here within this nation, dairy farms, working there and so forth. And they’ll continue to do so, despite the fact that they did all this at great risk.” Claudia Duran, a farmworker in Michigan and UFW member, said in a statement released following the hearing Wednesday that “[b]eing a farm worker isn’t easy.”
“I have faced many challenges, including dehydration, drastic weather conditions, limited access to food security, and insufficient PPE during the pandemic,” Duran said. “Throughout the pandemic, I continued to work. I didn’t have the luxury to quarantine at home, my four children depend on me. Through it all, I am constantly thinking of my status and returning home safely after work to my children.”
She and other farmworkers urged legislators to pass a pathway to citizenship. “I’ve worked in the fields alongside my mother since I was five,” said Anahi Santiago, a farmworker from Georgia. “My mother’s status has caged us with fear—I want her and others to live free of that fear.”
The hearing was about the need to pass citizenship for essential farmworkers, but Republicans sought to derail and distract by raising the unrelated topic of the southern border (of course). I won’t give air to their talking points other than to say that their claim that they can’t act on legalization because of the border is a years-old Republican talking point. The fact is that Republicans will sooner admit that the previous president lost the 2020 election before they say the border is secure under a Democratic administration.
Actually, that does bring up one moment from the hearing that I will mention, from an interaction between Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Ted Cruz. Roll Call reports: “After Cruz described the border last year under former President Donald Trump as ‘the most secure it’d been in 45 years,’ Vilsack hit back: ‘If that’s the case, then why didn't you all pass the Modernization Act last year after it passed the House?’” Good question indeed.
While the U.S. House has passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, the upcoming infrastructure and economic development bill is right now the best chance in years to pass permanent relief for undocumented farmworkers, along with young undocumented immigrants and temporary status holders. “A pathway to citizenship has been long overdue; I believe that this is the year that the Senate acts and provides this pathway,” Santiago continued. This must be the year. Right now is the time, and the need to act is all the more urgent after a federal judge’s recent ruling against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“We have a House of Representatives that has prioritized farm worker legalization by passing a bill in the first 100 days of this Congress,” Rodriquez said. “We have a Chair of the Judiciary Committee who has committed to passing legislation that allows farm workers to earn legal status. We have a President that is prepared to sign it. Now we need the Senate to use every tool at its disposal to honor the people that we rely on to feed the nation and bring stability to the agricultural industry. If we’re serious about addressing the issue of agricultural labor, this is our moment.”