FJ Blog

Thursday, 19 October 2017

I had the privilege of participating in the East Coast Migrant Stream Forum for Agricultural Worker Health in Atlanta earlier this month. The annual Forum brings together outreach workers, advocates, medical professionals and many others who provide crucial health services to farmworkers. It is a great opportunity to learn from those who are working with farmworker communities on the ground, as well as share updates on what is happening at the federal level.

This year, one of my presentations focused on pesticide safety, including recent revisions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and best practices for identifying and treating pesticide exposure. I co-presented with Alma Galvan, Senior Program Manager of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Migrant Clinicians Network (MCN), and Dr. Jose Rodriguez, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Castañer General Hospital in Lares, Puerto Rico.  

This was where the professional and personal collided for me. You see, I was born and raised in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, a small town on the island’s west side, not too far from where Dr. Rodriguez lives and works. My parents, siblings, extended family and friends still live on the island. As a teenager, I often went camping in the mountains of Adjuntas, one of the five rural municipalities covered by Castañer General Hospital’s services.  

During the three weeks between Hurricane Maria’s landfall and our scheduled presentation, communication with Dr. Rodriguez, as with a lot of people on the island, was virtually nonexistent. We had resigned ourselves to doing the presentation without him, and then just a few days before the event, he was able to let us know that he was still planning to come. His arrival in Atlanta was no small feat given conditions on the island, but then again, Dr. Rodriguez is accustomed to producing miraculous results amidst seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Earlier this year, Hospital General Castañer received the EPA’s Environmental Champion Award for outstanding commitment to protecting and enhancing environmental quality and public health. Dr. Rodriguez is a leader in the identification and treatment of pesticide exposure, as well as other occupational health issues. He is a dedicated family physician and passionate advocate for his community. During our presentation, Dr. Rodriguez stressed the important role of community health advocates and local hospitals in identifying pesticide incidents and gathering and recording key information that can serve not only for more effective medical treatment, but also to support future legal and advocacy work.

During the Forum’s plenary session, Dr. Rodriguez also shared pictures of his hometown – bare trees, downed electricity poles, streams where roads used to be. He highlighted the most recent official statistics – almost half the population on the island still had no running water, and approximately 90% still had no electricity. The numbers themselves are staggering, but the many human examples of what those numbers mean are truly overwhelming. Another staggering statistic: approximately 80% of the island’s agriculture was decimated by the storm, including the island’s coffee, tropical fruit and poultry farms. As I write this a week later, I would love to report that much progress has been made, but based on information from both family updates and media reporting, that would be woefully inaccurate.  

Dr. Rodriguez also cautioned all of us about the impending public health emergency that looms over the island as recovery advances in fits and starts. He worries that the floods and landslides will lead to pesticide drift in both soil and water, including wells. Mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika, where much progress had been made before, may reappear as stagnant water remains. A lack of basic hygiene may give rise to communicable diseases, while malnutrition and a lack of potable water, especially among children and the elderly, will inevitably have significant health effects. Outbreaks of conjunctivitis and leptospirosis (a bacterial disease caused by contaminated water) have already been reported and many hospitals are only able to operate partially due to the lack of electricity and a shortage of medical supplies.

Amidst this dire picture, I am reassured by the work of individuals like Dr. Rodriguez, countless heroes who may never get recognition from a federal agency for providing such essential services to their communities, including farmworkers. The hurricane in Puerto Rico and other recent natural disasters in California, Texas and Florida have quite literally laid bare many of the inequalities and dangers that farmworkers face every day. This past month has been very difficult for many, but it has also reaffirmed the importance of fighting for farmworker communities – communities who are intimately familiar with both nature’s capacity for capriciousness and humans’ capacity for resilience.     

You can donate to Puerto Rican relief efforts through the Hispanic Federation.

 



 

by Jessica Felix-Romero
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Thursday, 19 October 2017

Representative Goodlatte’s Agricultural Guestworker Bill

As summarized in our October 6th blog post, earlier this month Rep. Goodlatte postponed a scheduled meeting of the House Judiciary Committee to mark up his terribly anti-worker, anti-immigrant Agricultural Guestworker bill. Although the bill’s contents were circulated at the time, it was not formally introduced. The exact cause of the delay in the bill’s introduction and markup has not been made public, but there are media reports that there was strong opposition to the bill from both nativist groups and from organizations that support farmworker rights. The Daily Yonder, which reports on rural issues, has summarized criticisms of the draft bill, including Farmworker Justice’s position. Many agribusiness groups lobbied in support of the draft bill. We will continue to monitor the legislation closely and will be prepared to continue our work to oppose this legislation, along with the crucial aid of our national and local partners.  We have several resources available on the draft Goodlatte bill, including our statement; the coalition letter that was sent to Congress; and our fact sheet. Once the date and details of a markup are announced, we will send out a notification and next steps.

Trump Administration Publishes List of Immigration Objectives

Earlier this month, the White House published a list of its “immigration policy priorities,” calling for increased border and interior enforcement as well as a focus on so-called “merit-based” immigration. Farmworker Justice condemns this laundry list of anti-immigrant objectives. Some of the specific objectives listed include construction of a border wall, expansion of available grounds for inadmissibility and removal, limiting asylum and refugee admissions, and reducing family-based immigration. You can find an executive summary of the proposal on the White House website. You can also find the full proposal, with annotations by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), here.

The White House objectives have been denounced by immigrant rights groups, as well as by many Democratic leaders in Congress. The timing of their release is particularly concerning given ongoing negotiations in Congress regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  Farmworker Justice will continue to advocate, along with many other groups, to win passage of a “clean” DREAM Act. You can also advocate for DREAMers by reaching out to your representative and sharing resources on key issues affecting DREAMers, such as workplace rights, education and mental health (resources available in English and Spanish).

Department of Justice and State Department Announce Agreement Focusing on Discrimination against U.S. Workers in Visa Programs

The Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section (IER) and the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs recently entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreeing to exchange information about employers that may be engaging in unlawful discrimination in their use of employment-based visas, including the H-1B, H-2B and H-2A visa programs. The DOJ’s IER launched a “Protecting U.S. Workers” initiative earlier this year aimed at bringing enforcement actions against companies that discriminate against U.S. workers in favor of foreign visa workers. The DOJ recently filed its first lawsuit under this initiative against a crop production company it claims showed an unlawful hiring preference for temporary foreign workers under the H-2A visa program at the expense of qualified U.S. workers.

Unfortunately, discrimination is all too common in the H-2A program.  Employers often prefer guestworkers over U.S. workers because of the H-2A worker dependence and desperation to please.  In contrast, U.S. workers seek more sustainable productivity expectations.  Other factors encouraging employer preference for H-2A guestworkers are also built into the program, including tax advantages for employers of H-2A workers; exclusion of H-2A workers from the principal federal employment law for farmworkers, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act; and the ability of employers to handpick their H-2A workers based on demographics—they are virtually all young men—because anti-discrimination laws are not enforced abroad.  Although the H-2A program includes some basic requirements to protect U.S. workers from displacement and negative effects on their wages and working conditions, as well as to protect foreign workers from exploitation, it fails to protect these vulnerable workers.

NAFTA Renegotiation May Affect Agricultural Workers

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has had major effects on the agricultural sectors in Mexico and the United States.  The demand by the Trump Administration for a renegotiation and possible termination of NAFTA has led to negotiations over the provisions that regulate trade in fruits, vegetables, other crops, meat and other agricultural products. There are differences in positions taken by various grower groups in the U.S. and the potential impacts of these positions are complex, as highlighted in a recent article.  The Trump Administration has said that it wants to protect American workers but it remains to be seen what that would mean in reality.  The “labor side agreement” to NAFTA, called the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, has been a very weak instrument for enforcing labor rights.   

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

Natural Disasters Pose Unique Threats and Challenges for Farmworker Communities

A recent series of natural disasters, including ongoing wildfires in California and hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, have had a lasting and tragic effect on farmworker communities. In California, wine growing areas like Napa and Sonoma have been directly affected by the fires. The wine harvest is still underway in some locations, and farmworker crews are rushing to pick the remaining grapes amid heavy smoke. Farmworkers have suffered destruction to their homes and the businesses where they work, and some are contemplating whether to stay or leave.  

Additionally, as stated by FJ President Bruce Goldstein in an article by NBC News,  although there are some emergency services available to farmworkers irrespective of their immigration status, many undocumented farmworkers are fearful of accessing these direly needed services. Univision recently summarized the plight of these California farmworkers in a Spanish-language article entitled “Without Home, Without Work, and With Fear.” The article highlights how the wildfires have exposed the vulnerability of California’s farmworker communities. As stated by FJ’s Director of Occupational and Environmental Health, Virginia Ruiz, the current situation is part of a larger historical trend of farmworkers suffering in silence for fear of retaliation.

Hurricane Irma similarly left many without housing, jobs or food, including farmworkers throughout South Florida, where the hurricane flattened hundreds of acres of crops, leaving those who normally harvest these crops without a source of income. Many farmworkers are still suffering from food insecurity and struggling to pay their bills. The lack of government nutritional and financial assistance for undocumented workers further exacerbates this scarcity. In Puerto Rico, in turn, Hurricane Maria wiped out about 80% of the island’s crops, dealing a crippling blow to the island’s agricultural sector. It remains to be seen whether this will result in a higher influx of farmworkers to the mainland U.S. in the coming months and years.

Farmworker Justice helped connect community-based groups in Florida, Puerto Rico and California with the American Red Cross, which requested our assistance for its relief efforts outreach. The Red Cross and many other aid organizations provide services regardless of immigration status. Please reach out to local groups in your community to learn about available services. We would also like to remind everyone that Farmworker Justice has materials on disaster-related food, housing, and income assistance available for download from our website. We must all work together to ensure that farmworkers are included in their communities’ emergency preparedness and response plans, both during and after disasters.
 

 

 

 

by Iris Figueroa
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Friday, 06 October 2017

Goodlatte Postpones his Agricultural Guestworker Act for Lack of Votes

We are pleased to report that Rep. Goodlatte postponed the meeting of the House Judiciary Committee that was scheduled for Wednesday to mark up his terribly anti-worker, anti-immigrant Agricultural Guestworker Act due to the apparent lack of votes to pass the bill out of Committee. We thank you for working with Farmworker Justice, the UFW, the AFL-CIO and the UFCW to highlight the anti-worker and anti-immigrant nature of the bill and the devastating impact it would have on our food system.  While numerous members of the Committee would have voted against the bill because it is so anti-worker and anti-immigrant, they do not make up a majority of the Committee.  In addition to this righteous opposition, the Bloomberg BNA reported that “Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee succumbed to pressure from a group that backs immigration restriction.”

Some anti-immigrant nativist groups have objected to expanded guestworker programs because they oppose additional foreign citizens coming to the country (especially those of particular races and ethnicities).  These groups expressed concern that Goodlatte’s bill would bring large numbers of foreign workers into agriculture-related jobs outside of the farms and ranches that traditionally have been the workplaces for guestworkers.  Some apparently were concerned that agricultural employers would not be required to provide housing.  Some nativists also reportedly characterized the bill as giving “amnesty to illegal aliens currently working in agriculture” by allowing them to receive the proposed H-2C guestworker visas.

We would prefer to achieve an overwhelming vote against the Goodlatte bill based on it being an exploitative guestworker program and unfairly depriving undocumented agricultural workers of the opportunity to become citizens, rather than seeing the presence and influence in Congress of people committed to xenophobia, racism and exploitation in workplaces.  However, for now, we are pleased that the Judiciary Committee, which Goodlatte chairs, has not moved forward on this bill. The impacts of the Goodlatte bill, if passed, would be devastating to farmworkers, their families, their communities, and the nation.

Again, thanks for all of your support as we strive for fairness in our food and immigration systems.  The fight is not over and we must continue to oppose anti-immigrant, anti-worker efforts such as Rep. Goodlate’s legislation and the other harmful H-2 bills, the H-2A year-round amendment on the appropriations bill, and efforts to strip fundamental H-2A protections through agency action.

We have several resources available on the Goodlatte bill, including our statement; the coalition letter that was sent to Congress; and our fact sheet. For an overview of immigration reform and agriculture please read this piece and for more information about a positive solution, please read about the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2017.

 

by Adrienne DerVartanian
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