Guest Blog about House Hearing on Immigration and Agriculture

Guest Blog about House Hearing on Immigration and Agriculture

By: Lizett Aguilar

Lizett Aguilar is an undergraduate senior currently interning for Farmworker Justice. She was born and raised in the farmworker community of California’s San Joaquin Valley and has worked as a farm worker, harvesting grapes alongside her family during the summers to help pay for her education since she was sixteen.  She attended the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration’s hearing entitled “Securing the Future of American Agriculture” held on April 3, 2019.

I would first like to thank Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren for introducing the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019 in the House on January 17th, and for bringing much needed legislative attention to the crucial community of workers who feed this nation and the world. This act, colloquially known as the “Blue Card” bill, was one among a number of farmworker related topics discussed during the hearing. Other topics discussed included the H-2A visa program, current farm working conditions and immigration reform in a general context. I would also like to thank congress members Garcia, Correa, Escobar and Mucarsel-Powell who personally welcomed and thanked the farmworkers present at the hearing.

Attending the hearing was an eye-opening experience for me, as it often feels as though the progress being made for farmworkers is not enough, and it is a relief to know that the necessary conversations about the agricultural industry are being held by our elected officials capable of enacting legislative change. I will comment on a few of the testimonies and conversations held during the hearing, and bring up some concerns about the present nature of farm labor which I believe should have been discussed.

One of the most important questions and topics discussed during the hearing was the nature of farm labor itself. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal began this conversation by asking witness Areli Arteaga what a regular day looked like. Ms. Arteaga spoke about her family’s background in farm labor during her introduction and was able to expand on her personal experience as a farm worker in Idaho. Ms. Arteaga explained that her first farm labor experience was at age nine. This brought to light the common experience of the children of farmworkers who work alongside their parents at very young ages to financially contribute to the family. Ms. Arteaga then spoke about waking up at extremely early hours of the day and described the arduous working conditions she was exposed to. She would find herself soaked in sweat underneath her raincoat by noon when she was de-tasseling corn, unable to opt out of wearing it because it was needed to protect her from the humidity. She also described working on both knees for ten to twelve hours a day if one was picking strawberries. Farm labor is often undervalued by being labeled as “unskilled” labor and Ms. Arteaga challenged this notion by describing the difficult nature of the industry and testifying to how physically demanding being a farmworker is.

Another important conversation connected to the difficult nature of farm labor was the question of allowing farmworkers to earn legal status and the effects of doing so. When asked about the possible impact of farmworkers obtaining Permanent Lawful Status by Rep. Ken Buck, an agricultural employer witness responded by stating that workers were going to leave and find work elsewhere. This response brings attention to two important aspects of farm labor. First, it brings attention to the difficult nature of farm labor. If workers are willing to leave to different jobs, one of the factors contributing to this is the fact that farm labor is very harsh and difficult on the body compared to other similarly paid jobs. The other issue this response raises is the socio-economic conditions farm labor relegates workers to. If workers are willing to leave as soon as they have the ability to do so, it is because the wages and general conditions are very low in comparison to other industries. Former UFW President Arturo Rodriguez testified to this reality, explaining that the economic conditions of farm labor must be elevated in order to keep workers in agriculture and to cease their treatment as second-class citizens. Farmers, as testified by witness Tom Nassif, President and CEO of Western Growers, often state that H-2A farm workers have good living and working conditions and higher wages, however, if farmers also state that these same workers are willing to leave on the first chance they get, then their working, living, and socio-economic conditions are not as good as farmers state they are. I wish these points had been brought up by the committee’s members because it would have continued to shed light on the daily plight of farm workers, both the undocumented and those under H-2A visas.

Lastly, I wish the committee members had called attention to the rhetoric used by fellow committee members and witnesses which shifted the conversation about farmworkers to a discussion centered around their commodification as a source of labor; further drawing less importance to other aspects of farm worker conditions. Much of the conversation regarding the need to change the current H-2A visa program and the potential to provide a pathway to legal status for farmworkers was centered around ensuring American farmers had a cheap and reliant supply of labor, and not about the ways in which the H-2A program or the Blue Card Bill could improve the socio-economic, political, and familial well-being of farm workers. If Congress plans to create equitable reform for farm workers and the agricultural industry, it must humanize its integral workers instead of perpetuating a system which exploits their labor.