Farmworker Justice Immigration Update 3/9/17

Implementation of Immigration Orders Likely to Impact Farmworker Communities

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently released a series of memos, fact sheets and FAQs detailing its plans for implementing the new immigration orders signed by President Trump on January 25th, which focused on immigration enforcement both at the border and in the interior of the country. Perhaps the most significant feature of the orders is a change in immigration enforcement priorities. In its guidance materials, DHS confirms the broad scope of the new enforcement priorities, stating that it will not exempt any classes or categories of people from potential enforcement and that all of those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and removal. The guidance also states that DHS will not target DACA recipients or deviate from its established procedure for avoiding “sensitive locations” such as schools and hospitals, but it is still unclear whether these policies are being adhered to.

The effect of these orders and their implementation is the criminalization of immigration and increased uncertainty even for those who have been in this country for years, have U.S. citizen children who have grown up here, and have no criminal records. In Oregon, ICE has detained multiple workers, many of whom do not have criminal records, including one nursery worker who has several U.S. citizen children and has lived in the United States for about 15 years.  As stated by Farmworker Justice’s Bruce Goldstein in a recent Modern Farmer article: “These people work really hard at low-wage jobs to feed the country. To be vilified this way is causing them great harm.”

Trump’s immigration policies could also have a chilling effect on workplace complaints. As stated by Farmworker Justice’s Adrienne DerVartanian in a recent Bloomberg BNA article, agriculture, where a large portion of the workforce is undocumented, is an industry in which “violations of rights are rampant” and “the current environment, with a real focus on immigration enforcement and raids, has created an increase in the level of fear and concerns.”

Farmworkers are not the only ones concerned about the prospect of increased enforcement. Growers and other agricultural employers are worried about the possible impacts of increased immigration enforcement on the availability of workers. This concern has been voiced by employers across different geographical regions and agricultural industries around the country, including blueberries in New Jersey (as an aside, as mentioned in this article, White House adviser KellyAnne Conway grew up in southern New Jersey, worked as a blueberry picker during summer breaks from school and was crowned New Jersey Blueberry Princess in 1982 - but the blueberry industry, along with others in agriculture, is facing a crisis due to Trump's immigration policies and deportations), tomatoes in Michigan, apples in Maine, and dairy in New York, just to cite some examples. Unfortunately, even as many farmers express concern for their current workforce and want a way for those workers to adjust status, many are also calling for limiting protections and government oversight in the H-2A program. Some growers are emphasizing their political connections and hoping these will work to their benefit.

In this difficult political context, Farmworker Justice will keep fighting to ensure that farmworkers’ labor and human rights are respected while highlighting the need for progressive, sensible immigration reform that respects farmworkers.  Some of you may have heard or read Trump’s recent comments that he is open to immigration reform.  It is not clear what such proposed reform would entail, nor how it would move forward given the deep damage and lack of trust among immigrants and their supporters.  Nonetheless, it is obviously an issue we will be following closely.

Confirmation Process for Key Cabinet Positions in Trump Administration Continues   

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has re-scheduled Alexander Acosta’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of Labor for March 22nd (it had originally been scheduled for March 15th). Acosta was the Trump Administration’s second choice for the post, after Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration amidst controversy about his company’s labor practices, unpaid taxes for an undocumented domestic employee and past allegations of domestic violence.

Acosta is currently the Dean of Florida International University’s law school and has previously been through confirmation hearings for various government posts; having served on the National Labor Relations Board, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department and as a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida during the George W. Bush administration.

Farmworker Justice has signed on to a letter with many other national organizations calling for a thorough review of Mr. Acosta’s record. We hope that the upcoming confirmation hearing will serve to provide further information about Acosta’s views on both labor and immigration, particularly on issues that affect farmworkers such as enforcing the minimum wage and other wage-hour laws, administering the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, and setting occupational safety standards. 

Now that Acosta’s confirmation hearing has been set, only one Cabinet-level hearing remains to be scheduled – that of Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue. Perdue’s views on immigration are concerning--as Georgia governor, Perdue signed into law the state’s harsh anti-immigrant bill in 2006.  The delay in Perdue’s confirmation has frustrated some farm-state lawmakers who view it as a sign that the Trump Administration is not prioritizing rural America. The Senate Agriculture Committee had been waiting for weeks for the necessary paperwork to move forward with the nomination, including ethics forms and an FBI background check. The Committee finally received some documents this past Friday, March 10th. Perdue owns several agriculture-related businesses which may give rise to conflicts of interest and was fined for various ethics violations during his time as governor of Georgia.