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Do You Know Where Your Food Comes From?

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[Editors' Note: In November, Sojourners will examine the intersection of food, faith, and farmworker justice. Leading up to Thanksgiving, we will feature posts from contributing bloggers about where our food comes from, what affect this process has on agricultural workers, and how we can respond as people of faith.]

A half-century ago, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, the CBS Reports television program broadcast legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow's final documentary. "Harvest of Shame," a one-hour investigative report, examined the lives of migrant farmworkers.

The report featured Murrow in shirtsleeves in Florida's agricultural fields (smoking, of course), while a voice-over expounded on the living and working conditions of white, black, and Latino migrant agriculture workers. Murrow and his team examined the laborers' lives, including their substandard housing and their general exploitation by growers. In perhaps the program's most famous line, one of the growers was quoted as saying, "We used to own our slaves -- now we just rent them."

The broadcast garnered Murrow an Emmy, and it's still used in journalism classes today as a model for investigative reporting. One of Murrow's key points in emphasizing the exploitation of migrant agricultural workers was that the laborers were U.S. citizens -- not workers from the developing world -- and therefore were deserving of more dignified treatment from growers.

Today, the U.S. agriculture workforce is largely comprised of non-citizens from the developing world. The African-American migrant workers of the mid-twentieth century have been replaced by Caribbean, Central American, and Mexican non-citizen immigrant laborers. While citizens are essentially exempt from agricultural labor exploitation, non-citizen migrant laborers continue to suffer poor working conditions.

But if working conditions for migrant laborers are still substandard, the importance of immigrants in bringing food to American's tables is now acknowledged by the government. In fact, it's one of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's main talking points.

In August Vilsack stated, "Somewhere between 50 to 60 percent of the food you eat has been touched by immigrant hands, and it is fair to say some of them are not here as they should be here."

Instead of "some," Vilsack would have been more accurate in stating "almost all" immigrant agricultural workers are not "here as they should be." But, he is certainly correct in emphasizing the importance of immigrant labor for the nation's agriculture industry -- and for consumers.

"If you didn't have these folks, you would be spending a lot more -- three, four, or five times more -- for food, or we would have to import food and have all the food security risks," Vilsack continued. "Neither is what Americans want. What they want is what we have. Which is why we need comprehensive immigration reform."

Immigration reform is particularly important for the nation's agricultural growers who are facing increasing enforcement from the Obama administration. Without a stable and lawful workforce, growers contend with increased threats to their businesses' success. Some of them -- exhausted of dealing with an unstable workforce and government sanctions -- move their operations to Mexico.

Without legal channels for entering and exiting agricultural labor, agricultural workers are at the mercy of sometimes exploitative growers. Although conditions for most migrant laborers have improved since the 1960s, most rural immigrants are poor, and many are hungry.

Although national statistics are not available, one study in Iowa indicated that as much as 45 percent of rural Latino immigrant families were food insecure. Another study in North Carolina found that among Latino immigrants, 50 percent worried that the food they bought would not last until they could purchase more.

There are options for reforming the nation's immigrant-based agricultural business. The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJobs) is a bipartisan guest worker bill that creates a path for agricultural workers and their immediate families to earn legal temporary resident status based on past work experience in agriculture, passing a criminal background check, and paying an application fee. It also provides growers with more security and stability by providing a legal workforce they can count on for the long-term.

Under Agjobs, if farmworkers continue to labor in agriculture for five-years as legal temporary migrants and do not violate other standards, they become eligible for permanent resident status (a green card.) As comprehensive immigration reform's prospects look increasingly challenging, a bipartisan push on more limited -- but key -- elements of the nation's immigration policy could help reduce rural hunger and ensure that immigrants are able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

To view excerpts of the original "Harvest of Shame" broadcast, click here.

Andrew Wainer is an Immigration Policy Analyst for the Bread for the World Institute.

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