In the United States today, there are close to two million farm workers who harvest agricultural crops in America’s fields. These workers pick fruits and vegetables in California, Florida, and other agricultural states; apples in the Northwest and parts of New England; and peaches and tobacco in the southern states. They work on poultry, dairy, and livestock farms in the Midwest and parts of the Southwest. In Central Florida, they work in citrus and ornamental ferns.
Farm labor has long been considered one of the most dangerous occupations in the nation, with workers exposed to pesticides, long hours exposed to the elements, and unforgiving machinery. Even so, farm workers historically have been excluded from the protection of certain labor laws which other U.S. workers enjoy. Moreover, more than one-half of farm workers in this country are undocumented which makes them further subject to exploitation and abuse. Those who are U.S. citizens or are otherwise legal are unable to organize effectively and assert their basic rights in the workplace. Because of the seasonal and migratory nature of their work, farm workers often are separated from their families for long periods of time.
In many ways, the situation of farm workers in our nation today is no different than that chronicled in Edward R. Murrow’s famous and powerful 1960 documentary, Harvest of Shame, which first brought the plight of farm workers to the attention of the nation.
Despite these injustices, farm workers continue to work hard and remain indispensable to the U.S. agricultural industry and to the food production from which we all benefit.
President Bush and our elected officials have an opportunity to improve the situation of many farm workers in this country by enacting the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2005—AgJobs (S. 359), recently introduced by Senator Larry Craig of Idaho and cosponsored by Florida Senators Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson. The legislation, a bipartisan initiative which would legalize a number of farm workers across the nation, represents a positive first step in bringing some measure of justice to those who labor in U.S. agricultural fields.
The legislation is not an “amnesty,” as traditionally understood, but requires undocumented workers to work in farm labor for a specified time in order to “earn” permanent residency for themselves and their families. In the meantime, they are able to obtain temporary residency and move freely between here and their homeland. The legalization path will enable these undocumented workers to “come out of the shadows” and assert their basic rights in the workplace, creating an environment which will benefit U.S. and foreign-born farm workers in this country.
Passage of this legislation should mark the beginning, not the end, of fixing our immigration system which President Bush himself acknowledged as broken last year. Further steps towards reform should included other immigrant workers in industries such as construction, service, and other sectors who also should be given a chance to obtain work visas and to earn, through their work over time, permanent residency.
The U.S. Catholic bishops look forward to working with the President and Congress in the months ahead to achieve an immigration reform that provides remedies for legal status for those already here and that discourages illegal entry by providing avenues for people to apply to come and work legally and by streamlining the admissions’ process for family reunification.
Much has to be done to make our immigration system more just for the immigrant worker and more responsive to labor needs of the American economy. Passage of the AgJobs bill is a good start.