Bless the Hands That Picked This Food | Sojourners

Bless the Hands That Picked This Food

United Farm Workers Push for Legalization, Protections
Image via United Farm Workers

“Unskilled” and “temporary” do not accurately describe the people Areli Arteaga loves and works with — and she has no problem addressing those false labels. Arteaga, the daughter of two agricultural workers who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico almost 30 years ago without documents, testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on April 3, urging Congress members to help pass The Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019, also known as the “Blue Card” bill.

The proposed bill, HR 641, provides a pathway to citizenship for farm workers and their families, whether they are undocumented or hold an H2A visa, which is a temporary or seasonal agricultural work permit. It would establish a new type of legal status card: a blue card.

Arteaga worked six summers in the fields of Idaho during her adolescence and young adulthood. Her mother continues working with crops and her father cares for dairy cows.

“I am proud of my parents and my family because they came to this country with just the clothes on their backs. They now contribute to their community in many ways — one of them being by their skilled jobs,” she testified in the House hearing.

Chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee and co-sponsor for the bill Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) acknowledged systematic labor challenges as a contributor to the agricultural industry’s instability.

“Many of our constituents are still in business because of [farm workers]. No acceptable solution can fail to deal with this reality,” she said. “We have to find the courage to do what is right: to provide a seat at America’s table, for those who have long grown the food we serve on it.”

H-2A visa petition approval numbers have been trending upward nationally for the past three years, but the program has been criticized by farmers as too burdensome and expensive, and labor groups decry lacking protections on the job.

Lofgren suggested a balanced approach: one that preserves the current work force, provides reasonable processes for employers to bring in future workers, and is flexible for workers while protecting them from abusive situations.

The blue card status is not entirely new to Congress. It was part of a larger bipartisan immigration reform proposal in 2013. Another iteration that was introduced in 2017 didn’t pass the House.

This version would grant an eight-year work status to people who’ve worked 100 days in agriculture in the past two years, have no felony convictions, and pay a $400 processing fee and $100 penalty. During the eight years, they could visit their country of origin and re-enter with the card. Employers would be required to provide records to help applicants.

Arturo Rodriguez, former president of the United Farm Workers organization, said he felt hopeful about the hearing and the backing they have from Lofgren and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“We’ve gone way too long without giving farm workers in our nation, the men and women that harvest our food and crops, legal status and the rights and the same opportunities other workers have in our country, and to live with the dignity and the respect that they deserve,” he said.

In response to speculation that workers will leave for other jobs and create a larger deficit if given legal status, Rodriguez testified that farm workers consider agriculture a profession, and protections with a path to citizenship is a step toward elevating that work force.

One of the dozen delegates from the United Farm Workers, Marta Montiel, traveled from California to the hearing. She’s worked 10 years in the fields near Delano in California’s Central Valley and grown table grapes, kiwi, mandarins, blueberries, potatoes, carrots, and plums.

“It’s beautiful to work in the fields,” she said. “I love it because it is honest work.” Montiel is from Pachuca Hidalgo, a city in central Mexico. 

Rodriguez, a practicing Catholic all his life, said he draws support from his own faith and from interfaith communities across the nation and world.

“I think they’re very cognizant of the fact that there is a lot of exploitation and abuse,” he said. “And they’re very concerned about agricultural workers in this country being treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

Rodriguez said he is anxious to see what common ground those representing farmers and those representing employers will find, and how they’ll engage both Republicans and Democrats.

He anticipates more discussion about what type of legal status will be extended to workers who are already here and to their families, and to potential new workers. He says there’s also a need for benefits like fair pay with overtime, housing access, transportation coverages, and legal action if worker rights are violated.

The average salary for farm workers in the U.S. is around $25,000, with the adverse effect wage rates set by the Department of Labor ranging between $11.13 and $15.03 per hour depending on the state.

Arteaga is pushing for dynamic solutions. She says that pesticide exposure, heat stroke, and other challenges farm workers face are intertwined with their legal status — if a worker is undocumented, they’re less likely to speak up about need for protections. Arteaga and another activist, Andrea Delgado of Earthjustice and Green Latinos, agreed that prioritizing any one of these issues alone doesn't make sense, and to approach a solution for just one above the rest comes from a privileged point of view. 

The Committee on the Judiciary referred the HR 641 bill to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship after the hearing.