Farmworker Justice Immigration Update: 3/29/17

New Farmworker Justice “Know Your Rights” Materials Available Online

Farmworkers need to understand and know how to protect their Constitutional rights under any circumstances, but the threat of immigration enforcement in farmworker communities has made this need urgent. The large majority of farmworkers are immigrants and whether they are documented or undocumented, they do have rights. To this end, Farmworker Justice has compiled a list of available “Know Your Rights” materials in English and Spanish to help farmworkers and their communities better prepare for and respond to immigration enforcement.  The compilation includes materials prepared by Farmworker Justice as well as partner organizations.  Also available is a recording of our recent webinar addressing immigration policy developments presented with the United Farm Workers Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center. All these materials are available in the immigration section of our webpage, under “2017 Immigration Resources.”

Commemorating Cesar Chavez’ Birthday and Farmworkers Nationwide

March 31 is the birthday of Cesar Chavez, the late co-founder of the United Farm Workers. In honor of his legacy of activism, farmworkers are holding marches in over a dozen rural communities to repudiate the current administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. For more information about the marches and how you can participate, please visit the United Farm Workers’ Foundation website.

Farmworker Awareness Week

This week also marks the 18th annual Student Action with Farmworkers’ National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 24-31), with each day highlighting a different farmworker issue. Farmworker Justice has published a series of statements in coordination with this national awareness effort, which you can view on our blog.

Immigration Enforcement Continues to Affect Farmworkers

The Trump Administration’s threats of increased immigration enforcement have turned into action that is not only instilling fear but is affecting the country’s farmworkers and agricultural employers. Isolated rural areas, where farmworkers are essential to the rural economy, increasingly seem to be targeted.  Recently, two Vermont migrant workers and activists with no criminal records were detained in what appears to be  retaliation for their activism  defending the rights of immigrant workers on dairy farms. They were released on March 28 after a groundswell of support, including petitions and protests. You can learn more about their case here.  In Western New York, five apple pickers were detained by ICE last week, even though they also did not have any criminal records.

Immigration Enforcement’s Threat to the Farm Sector Highlighted  

Several media reports have highlighted the fears of farmers and farmworkers about the impact of immigration enforcement on businesses and workers.  As many as 70% of all fieldworkers are undocumented immigrants.  As stated by Farmworker Justice’s Bruce Goldstein, “if we were to engage in massive deportations, our agricultural system would collapse.” The Farm Bureau has shared its concerns that farms will not survive if many undocumented immigrants are deported.  

Some grower groups, including in California, are claiming that they already face labor shortages and that even increased wages and better working conditions will not solve the problem, while  Washington state farmers say they need more foreign seasonal workers, and dairies in Wisconsin say that they are struggling to keep the foreign workers they already have. While we certainly need Congress to grant legal immigration status to undocumented farmworkers and their family members, there is evidence that improvements in wages and decent housing can enable agricultural employers to find the farmworkers they need.  For example, a California garlic grower recently raised wages and now has a wait-list 150 people long.

In any event, the H-2A agricultural guestworker program offers employers an unlimited number of visas each year and more employers are using the program than ever before.  A recent NPR report confirms that fearful farmers are rushing to demand guestworkers.  At the same time, agribusiness groups have renewed their efforts to lower H-2A wage rates, remove labor protections, reduce government oversight and expand the program from seasonal to year-round jobs.  Farmworker Justice will continue to provide key information regarding the H-2A program and monitor any efforts to decrease protections or enforcement of the program, whether through executive or legislative means.

“Wall” Construction Plans Face Financial Obstacles

The Administration’s border security plans include a request for proposals for the building of the border “wall,” which specifies the characteristics of the barrier. President Trump has also requested approximately $2 billion for wall construction as part of his budget priorities, in addition to approximately $1 billion for increased detentions and deportations.  The Senate put aside a request for immediate funding for the wall but is likely to consider it later this year for inclusion in the FY 2018 budget. The construction of the wall faces a series of economic, logistical and legal challenges, including the fact that Democrats have threatened a government shutdown over its funding, leading to concerns from Republicans.

Attacks on “Sanctuary Jurisdictions” Continue

Another contentious immigration issue is the ongoing debate about “sanctuary jurisdictions.” Over the past several decades, approximately 600 jurisdictions around the country have adopted a variety of policies intended to serve residents regardless of their immigration status. One of President Trump’s January 2017 executive orders on immigration called for the Attorney General to take enforcement action against such jurisdictions, a move that various legal scholars have deemed unconstitutional.

On March 27, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered remarks announcing that he would withdraw Justice Department funds from cities that do not share information about undocumented immigrants with the federal government. The remarks focus on a narrative linking immigrants to crime and stating that these policies harm public safety. This position is not surprising given Jeff Sessions’ well known anti-immigrant views. However, studies have shown that sanctuary jurisdictions actually have lower crime rates, and the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the U.S., has warned that cutting grants to sanctuary jurisdictions could endanger public safety. The House of Representatives recently held a hearing which focused heavily on the sanctuary jurisdictions issue, which you can view in its entirety here.

Cabinet Confirmation Updates

On March 22, the Senate held a hearing on Labor Secretary nominee Alexander Acosta, during which he was asked about the fate of various Obama-era regulations governing overtime pay, health and safety, and retirement. You can view the full hearing here. His vague testimony did not inspire confidence about his commitment to vigorously enforce wage-hour and occupational safety laws. Following the hearing, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) released a statement detailing some of the issues on which Acosta’s position remains unclear. The vote on Acosta’s confirmation has been scheduled for March 30.  

The Senate also held a hearing on the nomination of George “Sonny” Perdue to serve as Agriculture Secretary.  The March 23 hearing was fairly short and cordial. There were no questions regarding past allegations of unethical behavior during Perdue’s time as governor of Georgia or about Georgia’s anti-immigration law. You can view the full testimony here. During the hearing, Perdue responded affirmatively when asked by two Democratic Senators -Sens. Leahy (VT) and Gillibrand (NY) - whether he supports the expansion of the H-2A program to year-round jobs on dairy farms. Farmworker Justice is particularly troubled that both Senators advocated for the inclusion of dairy in the H-2A program. The Senators recognized that dairy is currently excluded from H-2A because it is year-round work and H-2A only covers seasonal work (with an exception for sheep and goat herders), but asked the nominee to work with them to ensure dairy would be included in H-2A. We are disappointed that the Senators did not use this opportunity to push for Perdue’s support for legalization of undocumented immigrants in the current dairy workforce, many of whom would be displaced from their jobs if their employers were successful in joining the H-2A program.