America's Invisible Farmworkers

by Erin Brock | July 2, 2013 12:00 am

With summertime comes fresh produce lining farmer’s markets tables and grocery store shelves, and as families sit down to enjoy the feast of fresh, colorful food I’m going to guess that very few of them know what it took for their berries and tomatoes to get out of the ground and into their kitchen.  I’m also going to guess that very few realize that their food was most likely picked by an immigrant, and probably an undocumented one. Farmworkers harvest or cultivate over 85 percent of these crops by hand and with an estimated 60% of farmworkers undocumented, chances are that at least some of that food you’re enjoying was touched by a worker who isn’t even officially recognized by the U.S. government for doing the work they do.

The current H2a visa program allows farmworkers to temporarily enter the country and work during the agricultural busy season.  However, the application process is arduous, impractical and simply outdated, causing many small farmers to bypass the system altogether and hire undocumented workers informally. On top of the broken system, very few native born Americans are willing to take these jobs.  In 2011, only 163 native born citizens were employed as farmworkers and only 7 of these workers were still working at the end of the season.  Without an effective visa program and with a massive need for agricultural workers, farmers that feed American families all over the country are forced to turn to illegal means purely to stay afloat.

The CIR bill passed in the Senate does address these issues with an opportunity for temporary status and a path to citizenship for farmworkers who have been working here illegally. The bill also streamlines the worker visa process making it more accessible to farmers and farmworkers and gives workers the freedom to travel and change employers. That last piece is important; the ability to change employers gives workers the ability to protect themselves from abuse and maltreatment.  However, U.S. farmworkers struggle with a myriad of hardships daily.

Farmworkers and their families often live in poverty.  Around 75% do not have health insurance.  Few have education above the 8th grade level. Many live day to day unsure of where their food will come from. And, for every food income dollar earned, only 6% goes to these farmworkers.  I am excited about what the provisions in the Senate immigration bill could mean for farmworkers; I urge the House to not forget them as they draft their own bill.  I am optimistic. But as great as immigration reform would be for farmworkers, I also hope that we do not forget how much America needs these workers and that green cards will not solve everything.

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