Celebrating National Farmworker Awareness Week: Border Issues

Today is the first day of National Farmworker Awareness Week. For our first blog post, we wanted to draw attention to the many farmworkers living and working along the borders of the United States. The border zone encompasses more people than you may think. Customs and Border Protection’s definition of the border zone for enforcement purposes includes an area 100 miles from any external boundary inside the US. According to the ACLU “roughly two-thirds of the United States' population, about 200 million people, lives within the 100-mile zone.” From the fruits and vegetables in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida to dairy products in New York, Vermont and the Midwest, much of the food we eat is produced in this border zone. Around half of farmworkers are undocumented, so the proximity to the border and border enforcement means that many in these communities live in fear and are inhibited in their activities and movement. 

According to the Border Agricultural Workers Project more than 12,000 agricultural laborers live and work in the border region of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez-Southern New Mexico. Chiles, the staple of New Mexican cuisine, are grown there along with onions and pecans. For this blog post, I spoke with Elizabeth (Eli) Cuna, a Dreamer and activist scholar, and the development coordinator for the New Mexico Dream Team and a research associate at the Community Engagement Center at UNM. Eli does education and outreach to this community of young farmworkers. Eli and her colleagues educate young farmworkers at the local high schools on DACA, New Mexico’s law that protects immigrants from being discriminated against in higher education and allows all residents of New Mexico to receive in-state tuition regardless of immigration status. Her team also provides Know Your Rights trainings on immigration enforcement.

The farmworkers in this community are low-income and limited in their opportunities, among other things, by their proximity to the border. Eli described the farmworkers as being caged in by the border and an immigration check point. Many people never travel outside of that area. A 2012 survey of New Mexico farmworkers by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Human Rights Alert: New Mexico’s Invisible and Downtrodden Workers, revealed the abusive conditions in the fields of New Mexico, including extremely low wages and high levels of wage theft. Sixty-seven percent of field workers were victims of wage theft in the year prior to the survey; 43% of respondents stated that they never received the minimum wage and 95% were never paid for the time they waited each day in the field to begin working. The farmworkers surveyed also experienced dangerous working conditions, with 29% reporting work in a field with no drinking water; 52% reporting work in at least one field where they did not receive any breaks; and 47% reporting pesticide-related health problems as a result of pesticide exposure in the fields.

Most of the high school students Eli provides info-sessions to also work in the fields. The DACA program has opened up new opportunities for their future. Eli and her team followed up with the young Dreamers, 6 months after her first visit and she saw that their aspirations had changed. They are planning to attend college and organize farmworkers.

There is still a lot to be done. When asked what else is needed to improve the lives of farmworkers in this community, Eli responded that they still need access to health care, quality education and fair wages. They also still need a path to permanent legal status and the opportunity to become citizens and equal members of our society.