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October 25, 2017

Farmworker Justice condemns the passage today, in the House Judiciary Committee, of an amended version of the “Agricultural Guestworker Act,” HR 4092, sponsored by Committee Chair Goodlatte (R-VA). This legislation would replace the current H-2A agricultural guestworker program with a devastating new H-2C program, expanding employer access to potentially millions of vulnerable new “guestworkers.” The program would reach not just traditional seasonal farm work, but also would include year round jobs in many occupations, such as meat and poultry packing and processing, forestry, aquaculture, and more.

Adrienne DerVartanian, the Director of Immigration and Labor Policy of Farmworker Justice said today, “This legislation is fundamentally anti-immigrant and anti-worker. It would make life monumentally worse for agricultural workers, including the hundreds of thousands of U.S. farmworkers and the roughly one million undocumented workers currently doing this work, as well as the untold number of guestworkers who could come to the U.S. to labor under this program.”

The impact of this bill’s exploitative conditions would have a profoundly adverse impact on US workers because it allows employers to provide substandard wages and working conditions. As the new program erases existing labor protections, including crucial wage requirements, U.S. workers will be displaced or earn lower wages.

The bill fails to provide a solution for the many undocumented farmworkers who labor daily to ensure America has a safe, secure and abundant food supply. The legislation denies current undocumented farmworkers the chance to earn immigration status or citizenship. Instead, undocumented workers would be required to self-deport and would be dependent on an employer to sponsor them for an H-2C visa. Instead of supporting families, this bill would tear families apart as the legislation specifically and intentionally separates families by prohibiting family visas. This is cruel and senseless—to the farmworkers who have worked here for years, to their families, and to the U.S. communities they have helped build and sustain.

It is not surprising that the discussion during the markup turned to sharecropping and indentured servitude given the significant negative impact this bill would have on the millions of guestworkers who could enter the U.S. under this program. These new H-2C guestworkers would likely face debt, extremely low wages, dangerous living and working conditions, and extremely limited access to justice. Additionally, workers would be separated from their families and would have no path to citizenship, even if they worked in the U.S. for years.”

There is a sensible solution to address the impact of the broken immigration system on agriculture, the Agricultural Worker Program Act, introduced by Rep. Gutierrez (D-IL) and Sen. Feinstein (D-CA). The Agricultural Worker Program Act recognizes the value of farmworkers to the stability of our food system by providing a path to citizenship for qualified farmworkers and their families. The legislation would benefit not only farmworkers and agricultural employers, but also our national interest in a secure, safe food supply.

Farmworker Justice is deeply disappointed in the passage of this bill, but does appreciate the amendments offered by some Members that sought to improve wages and working conditions, ensure access to justice, provide housing, offer a path to immigration status and citizenship, and limit the scope and size of this program. While unsuccessful, these amendments and the debate thereon highlighted the devastating nature of the bill for all workers. Farmworker Justice will continue to fight to defeat this terrible legislation and to seek for justice for farmworkers, including an opportunity for immigration status and improved wages and working conditions.

 

October 23, 2017

Washington, D.C. - On October 24, 2017, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark-up Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.)“Agricultural Guestworker Act.” Rep. Goodlatte’s bill was originally scheduled to be marked up earlier this month, but the hearing was postponed. Farmworker Justice strongly opposes this proposal.

Rep. Goodlatte’s proposal would devastate America’s current and future farmworkers.  By stripping away labor protections that evolved over decades in response to abuses, the proposed H-2C visa program would subject hundreds of thousands of U.S. farmworkers to job losses and lower wages, and would allow exploitation of vulnerable guestworkers.  Rep. Goodlatte’s bill also fails provide a workable solution for undocumented farmworkers, who make up at least half of the current workforce and are vital to maintaining our food and agricultural systems. And not just farmworkers would be impacted -- the Agricultural Guestworker Act reaches beyond traditional farm jobs to include agriculture-related processing and manufacturing jobs, as well as forestry and aquaculture.  

Farmworker Justice Director of Immigration and Labor Adrienne DerVartanian said: “Rep. Goodlatte’s bill would create a massive new anti-worker, anti-immigrant guestworker program. This program would subject workers across agriculture and beyond—from the fields to the processing plants, from aquaculture to forestry—to low wages, poor working conditions, and exploitation.  Instead of providing our nation’s experienced undocumented workers with a path to immigration status and citizenship, the only option this bill provides is for undocumented workers to become subjugated contract laborers under the new H-2C program, a program that requires workers to regularly return to their country of origin and intentionally prohibits family members from joining workers.”

Hundreds of thousands of U.S workers depend on these jobs for their livelihood and work hard to make sure America has a safe, abundant food supply. This bill only provides the likelihood of displacement when workers are unwilling to accept the substandard wages and working conditions this bill provides. We are a nation of immigrants, not a nation of guestworkers deprived of economic freedom and political representation.  Congress should reject the Goodlatte bill and other pending anti-worker, anti-immigrant proposals regarding agricultural workers.  It is illogical to allow employers to hire more guestworkers without first addressing the need to legalize the hundreds of thousands of experienced farmworkers who are already contributing to our economy and society, many with U.S. citizen children and deep ties to their communities.

Our agricultural labor system deserves a real solution that provides a path to citizenship for farmworkers, as is offered in the Agricultural Worker Program Act introduced by Rep. Gutierrez (D-IL) and Sen. Feinstein (D-CA).  The Agricultural Guestworker Act would create an extremely abusive new guestworker program that would transform the farm labor force into a system of non-immigrant guestworkers who hold temporary work permits and are subjected to low wages and poor working conditions, with inadequate recourse for the  abuses that will inevitably result from the program’s inherently flawed structure.  

October 02, 2017

On October 2, 2017, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced  the “Agricultural Guestworker Act.” Farmworker Justice strongly opposes this proposal.

Rep. Goodlatte’s proposal would devastate America’s current and future farmworkers.  By stripping away labor protections that evolved over decades in response to abuses, the proposed H-2C visa program would subject hundreds of thousands of U.S. farmworkers to job losses and lower wages, and would allow exploitation of vulnerable guestworkers.  Rep. Goodlatte’s bill also fails provide a workable solution for  undocumented farmworkers, who make up at least half of the current workforce and are vital to maintaining our food and agricultural systems. And not just farmworkers would be impacted -- the Agricultural Guestworker Act reaches beyond traditional farm jobs to include agriculture-related processing and manufacturing jobs, as well as forestry and aquaculture.  

Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein stated: “Increased deportations and other immigration enforcement have exacerbated an already untenable situation for farmworkers as well as their employers.  This bill would  aggravate the unfairness and dysfunction in our current system.  Rep. Goodlatte’s bill proposes a massive new guestworker program that would deprive U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents of job opportunities, lower farmworkers’ already poor wages, and allow exploitative conditions for new guestworkers, worsening labor conditions for all farmworkers. And instead of taking steps to stabilize the existing experienced, productive workforce through a path to citizenship for current undocumented farmworkers, Goodlatte’s bill would  substitute one third-class status for another by seeking to convert undocumented workers into subjugated contract laborers. Rep. Goodlatte’s proposed H-2C visa program deserves no serious consideration.”

We are a nation of immigrants, not a nation of guestworkers deprived of economic freedom and political representation.  Congress should reject the Goodlatte bill and other pending anti-worker, anti-immigrant proposals regarding agricultural workers.  It makes no sense to allow employers to hire more guestworkers without first addressing the need to legalize the hundreds of thousands of experienced farmworkers who are already contributing to our economy and society, many with U.S. citizen children and deep ties to their communities.  Our agricultural labor system deserves a real solution that provides a path to citizenship for farmworkers, as is offered in the Agricultural Worker Program Act introduced by Rep. Gutierrez (D-IL) and Sen. Feinstein (D-CA).  

Featured Blog

November 13, 2017

Farmworker Justice Update: 11/09/17

H-2C Guestworker Proposal Approved by House Judiciary Committee  

            As noted in our previous updates, on October 25 the House Judiciary Committee passed the “Agricultural Guestworker Act” sponsored by Chairman Goodlatte. In order to become law, the bill must also be voted on and approved by the full House and Senate. As we stated in our blog about the markup, it is unclear if and when the bill will move forward in the House, but Farmworker Justice will continue to monitor the legislation. Mother Jones published an article soon after the bill’s passage in the Judiciary Committee outlining some of the ways in which the new guestworker program would prove harmful to all workers, including concerns voiced by Farmworker Justice.

House Passes Anti-Joint Employer Bill Which May Make it Harder to Hold Agricultural Employers Accountable

           On November 7, the anti-joint employer “Save Local Business Act,” HR 3441, passed the House by a vote of 242-181. The bill would revise the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to essentially prevent joint employer liability. Although the bill does not amend the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA), which is the main statute protecting farmworkers, much of the case law on joint employer liability under AWPA in the farmworker setting relies on the FLSA’s broad definition of the word “employ.” If this definition is narrowed, courts and government agencies could apply the restrictive concept of joint employment in HR 3441 to AWPA as well. This could undermine farmworkers’ ability to ensure that growers and labor contractors are jointly liable for labor violations. Joint employer liability has proven essential for farmworkers to obtain relief because labor contractors often do not have sufficient assets to pay court judgments. During the debate on the bill, Rep. Espaillat of New York emphasized the bill’s potentially harmful impact on farmworkers and entered into the record Farmworker Justice’s statement on the bill. The next step for the bill is for it to move to the Senate.  Farmworker Justice will continue to monitor the bill, along with many other labor rights organizations, such as the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which recently published a New York Times op-ed against the bill.

DHS Terminates TPS Designation for Nicaragua, Undecided on Honduras  

            On November 6, acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Elaine Duke announced the Administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Nicaragua, with an effective termination date of January 5, 2019. In the announcement, the acting Secretary also noted that additional information is needed for a decision on TPS for Honduras and temporarily extended TPS for Hondurans until July 5, 2018. Nicaraguans and Hondurans with TPS will be required to reapply for employment authorization documents in order to continue to work in the U.S. until these respective deadlines. According to the Washington Post, there are currently about 2,500 Nicaraguans and more than 50,000 Hondurans with TPS. The country with the biggest number of TPS recipients is El Salvador, with approximately 200,000 people who might lose their status in early 2018. DHS also has just a few weeks to announce its plans for more than 50,000 Haitian TPS holders (DHS had announced a six-month extension for Haitian TPS earlier this year).

                Faith, labor and immigration rights groups have denounced the Administration’s recent decision and are calling for action in defense of the TPS program, including contacting representatives in Congress. For a detailed breakdown of TPS holders in each state, please see this Fact Sheet by the Center for American Progress (CAP). The final decision on TPS designation for Honduras, as well as for other remaining countries such as El Salvador and Haiti, is likely to be made by Kirstjen Nielsen, who has been nominated to the post of DHS Secretary. Nielsen testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on November 8.  If approved by the Committee, her confirmation must then be voted on by the full Senate.

Uncertainty over DACA Continues as End of the Year Nears  

            Last week, President Trump held a closed-door meeting with various GOP senators regarding immigration. It was reported that during the meeting, those present decided against including a solution for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients in an end of the year spending deal. In spite of these reports, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer stated earlier this week that he is “very optimistic” that DACA legislation will pass before the end of the year with bi-partisan support. He also predicted that President Trump would not veto a spending bill with a DACA solution. Today in Congress, 16 House Republicans will hold a press conference in support of Dreamers. Congressional Democrats are also holding a press conference and have held a number of events in support of Dreamers. DACA advocates are continuing their efforts to showcase the contributions of Dreamers in their communities and urge Congress to act quickly towards a solution. As part of those efforts, United We Dream is supporting a “Walkout for the Dream Act” today. There will also be a national call-in day in support of DACA on November 14.

Amid National Conversation about Sexual Harassment, Farmworker Voice Essential

            National Public Radio (NPR) recently interviewed Rosalinda Guillen, a farmworker rights activist and director of Community to Community. As Rosalinda explained in the interview, farmworker women face harassment, sexual assault and rape, which often goes unreported.  Workers are afraid that if they speak up they will be retaliated against, or that their families, who often work for the same employer, will be retaliated against as well. The lack of privacy in farmworker housing often exacerbates farmworker women’s vulnerability to harassment.

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

CHIP and Health Center Funding Extended, but With Harmful Offsets

On Nov. 3, the House of Representatives passed HR 3922, the “Championing Healthy Kids Act,” which extends funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for five years and for community health centers for two years. Both CHIP and community health center funding expired on September 30. The bill, while ensuring funding for these two important programs, also cuts $6.35 billion from the ACA’s Prevention and Public Health Fund and includes other harmful offsets that would reduce health insurance coverage.  The Senate Finance Committee passed a bipartisan bill, S. 1827, the “Keeping Kids’ Insurance Dependable and Secure” (KIDS) Act, on October 4. While it also extends CHIP funding for five years, the Senate bill does not include community health center funding or any offset provisions to pay for the program. It seems unlikely the Senate will vote on the KIDS Act as a standalone bill. The Kaiser Foundation has prepared a helpful summary and comparison of both bills. Some states will begin to run out of CHIP funds as early as January 2018. Without an extension of CHIP and community health center funding, farmworker families will have even less access to health insurance and health care.

Open Enrollment Has Begun!

Open enrollment for 2018 health insurance coverage has officially begun! Enrollment opened November 1 and, in most states, ends December 15 (a few states, like California and New York, extended open enrollment through January 2018). According to the Hill, a record number of people signed up for coverage in the first few days. However, the shortened open enrollment period and the cuts in navigator funding present numerous challenges, especially in farmworker communities. It’s important to remind eligible workers and their families that open enrollment has begun and that financial assistance to lower the cost of health insurance is available. Farmworker Justice has resources for workers and advocates available on our website. You can also learn more about open enrollment and available in-person assistance in your community at healthcare.gov or cuidadodesalud.gov.

October 27, 2017

Agricultural Guestworker Act Passed in House Judiciary Committee  

On Wednesday, after multiple hours of debate over the course of two days, the House Judiciary Committee narrowly passed Chairman Bob Goodlatte's (R-VA) Agricultural Guestworker Act, HR 4092, by a vote of 17-16. Rep. Goodlatte’s bill would create a massive new anti-worker, anti-immigrant guestworker program – the H-2C program – to replace the current H-2A temporary guestworker visa program. The H-2C program would reach far beyond the H-2A program to year-round agricultural work, as well as work in industries such as food processing, forestry and aquaculture.

The markup was contentious, with 19 amendments offered and debated.  Many of the Democratic members present highlighted the negative impact this bill’s limited protections would cause to U.S workers’ jobs, wages and working conditions, as well as concern about the harm it would cause the current undocumented workforce and future guestworkers. While the vote was mainly along party lines with 14 Democratic Representatives voting against the bill, Representatives Steve King (R-IO) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX)—both of whom are immigration restrictionists— also voted against the bill; 5 Republicans did not vote.  The amendments offered are available on the HJC website by clicking on the “+” by the legislation: https://judiciary.house.gov/markup/markup-october-25/

The delay in the beginning of the mark-up and the abrupt and unexpected recess on Tuesday caused some to speculate that there were internal divisions in the Majority party regarding support for the legislation. As you may recall, the initial markup scheduled for the beginning of October was postponed amidst speculation that Rep. Goodlatte did not have the votes to move the bill out of committee.  Rep. Goodlatte subsequently revised the legislation to make it even harsher towards the undocumented and to lower the cap minimally, among other changes. Our summary of the bill is attached.

H-2C Program Strips Away H-2A’s Limited Worker Protections, Including Wage Requirements, Prompting Comparisons to Sharecropping and Indentured Servitude  

Various lawmakers, including Representatives Lofgren (D-CA), Jayapal (D-WA), Raskin (D-MD), Nadler (D-NY) and Johnson (D-GA) stressed throughout the markup that wages under the H-2C program would be abysmally low.  They pointed out that workers would start from a very low wage floor, would have 10% of their wages withheld, and could then see even more deductions from their pay for costs like transportation, recruitment fees, tools, protective clothing, and more, because of the bill’s language waiving FLSA protections for certain costs and deductions. Rep. Lofgren offered several amendments highlighting the lack of a real wage floor in the bill and seeking to reinstate FLSA protections. Unfortunately, her amendments, as well as those offered by the other members to restore the H-2A wage protections, (Rep. Conyers) require payment of an average wage (Rep. Nadler), and eliminate the 10% bond (Rep. Jayapal) were all rejected, largely along party lines.

In an implicit admission that the H-2C program’s substandard wage levels would depress wages in the areas covered by the program, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) introduced an amendment, which was adopted, establishing that certain meat and poultry processing jobs should be paid the prevailing wage. Rep. Farenthold refused Rep. Raskin’s request that he support similar wage protections for the other sectors covered in the bill, replying that he wanted to keep the amendment narrow. His amendment also narrowed the definition of agricultural labor for those in meat and poultry processing to those in the “killing of animals and the breakdown of their carcasses” and removed the language prohibiting the cap for meat and poultry workers from falling below 40,000.

Rep. Raskin (D-MD) introduced an amendment he entitled the “No Room at the Inn” amendment, seeking to re-establish the current H-2A requirement that employers provide housing to their agricultural workers. Rep. Raskin detailed the challenges that agricultural workers face in finding safe and affordable housing, particularly in remote rural areas. Along with Rep. Lofgren, he highlighted the potential for adverse health effects from a lack of sanitary and reliable housing, as well as the negative impact this could have on food safety. The amendment failed.

Several amendments also addressed the bill’s provisions restricting workers’ access to justice. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) was highly critical of the bill throughout the debate, and offered an amendment to allow federally-funded legal services programs to represent H-2C agricultural guestworkers to protect their rights (as they now are under the current H-2A program).  Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) opposed the amendment, arguing that legal services attorneys use taxpayer money to harass farmers.  Rep. Johnson (D-GA) then introduced an amendment allowing H-2C workers to access the legal system without first having to go through mandatory mediation and forced arbitration, which would be prohibitively costly for most workers. Both amendments seeking to improve H-2C workers’ access to justice were defeated.

Rep. Johnson also spoke eloquently about the oppressive overall structure of the H-2C program, where workers will have to bear so many wage cuts and costs that they might end up earning very little or nothing at all and are in essence “paying for the privilege to come here and be exploited.” He likened the program to a hybrid of the systems of sharecropping and slavery, as well as indentured servitude, although he noted that “at least in indentured servitude you had the opportunity to work your way to freedom.”

Members Highlighted Impact of H-2C Program’s Lack of Protections on U.S. Workers’ Wages and Working Conditions

Beyond the bill’s likely terrible impact on the living and working conditions of foreign guestworkers, much of the debate around the bill also focused on the effect that the H-2C program’s lower wages and labor standards would have on the job security and working conditions of U.S. workers.

Several of the amendment highlighted the expansive scope of the new H-2C program and the fact it would reach many new occupations. Members debated, but did not pass, an amendment from Reps. Lofgren eliminate forestry work from the H-2C program—forestry.  During the debate on Rep. Farenthold’s meat and poultry amendment, Rep. Jayapal discussed, but did not offer, her much broader amendment that proposed to exclude meat and poultry processing and manufacturing jobs from the definition of agriculture under the bill.

Another aspect of the bill that fostered much discussion was the number of workers that could be brought in under the program. The bill text establishes a cap of 450,000 workers, which includes a 40,000 cap for meat and poultry processing workers. Rep. Jayapal introduced an amendment, which was voted down, limiting the total number of workers in the H-2C program at any one time to 450,000. She highlighted that the total number of guestworkers could reach into the millions given the many exceptions to the illusory 450,000 figure and the possible 10% growth each year.

Rep. Issa introduced an amendment seeking to allow the cap to increase by 15% each year instead of by 10%. However, a recess was called during the debate on his amendment and the markup did not reconvene until the following day, which began with Rep. Issa withdrawing the amendment, leading to speculation that it did not have enough support to pass.

Finally, Rep. Cicilline offered an amendment that would have eliminated the financial incentive that temporary, seasonal H-2C employers and some year-round jobs would enjoy by hiring H-2C workers over US workers due to the fact that they do not have to pay the FICA or FUTA taxes on their guestworkers’ wages. The bill requires most employers of year-round workers to pay a roughly equivalent amount—10%-—to a fund for administration of the program.  The amendment, which failed, would have required the same for all H-2C workers.

Bill’s Proposed “Solution” for Undocumented Workers Anything But

Although Chairman Goodlatte touted the bill as a way to address labor shortages in the agricultural sector, the bill does not provide a feasible solution for the more than one million undocumented workers currently doing this valuable work. As noted by both Rep. Gutierrez (D-IL) and Rep. Lofgren (D-CA), these farmworkers have been living and contributing to their communities for years and even decades, and many have families, including spouses, children and even grandchildren. One of the few proposed amendments to the bill that passed was a proposal by Rep. Handel (R-GA), requiring, among other things, that currently undocumented workers return to their home countries before being able to apply for H-2C visas. Rep. Gutierrez decried the bill’s cruel and unworkable plan for undocumented farmworkers to self-deport and come back as H-2C guestworkers who must separate from their families, without having a path to citizenship. Rep. Gutierrez presented the Agricultural Worker Program Act, which he introduced earlier this year, as an amendment to replace Goodlatte’s H-2C bill. His amendment and legislation would provide a workable and humane solution for our agricultural labor system, to the benefit of employers and undocumented farmworkers, while respecting the humanity and contributions of our nation’s farmworkers; however, it was also defeated.

Future of Agricultural Guestworker Bill Uncertain

Along with the Agricultural Guestworker Act, the House Judiciary Committee also approved the “Legal Workforce Act”, HR 3711, on Wednesday. The Legal Workforce Act would make employment verification (“E-Verify”)of work authorization mandatory for all employers. There is broad opposition to mandatory E-Verify legislation for a number of reasons, including flaws in the system and its implementation, as well as the fallacy of enacting mandatory employment verification in the absence of broader comprehensive immigration reform.  Among these opponents are agricultural employers, who have opposed E-verify efforts in the past due to the high proportion of undocumented farmworkers.  The bills were purposely scheduled together because the creation of the extremely one-sided H-2C program was intended to make agricultural employers less likely to push back against E-Verify and other immigration enforcement efforts.

The fate of the Agricultural Guestworker Act and whether it will be brought to the floor for a vote will ultimately be decided by Republican leadership.  The contentious debate in the Committee and the lack of unity among Republicans in their position on the bill may be factors Republican leadership considers. The immigration debate is currently focused (as well it should be) on the fate of DREAMers. Other issues beyond immigration, such as proposed tax reforms and budget negotiations, may also take up a significant portion of the legislative calendar in the near future.

Farmworker Justice will continue to monitor this bill and any attempts to bring it to a full floor vote. We hope you will help us to ensure that we do not take a significant step back for all workers by enacting the Agricultural Guestworker Act.


 

October 19, 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.

 



 

Immigration

Quick access to our dual-language resources about immigration enforcement specifically for farmworkers. Resources include preparedness checklists, FAQs about raids, and Know Your Rights Toolkits.

Immigration is a critically important issue for farmworkers. Learn about current legislation proposals impacting farmworkers.

Learn about the history of guestworker programs, H-2A program for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B visa program.