Farmworker Justice Update: 10/18/17

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.