Why is the Community Food and Justice Coalition so interested in immigration? You might ask, what does immigration have to do with food and justice? As a new volunteer intern I want to address this issue by building on our last few posts on immigration. At first glance it may be unclear why the outcome of S. 744 matters to us, but the bill represents a contentious area of social justice that could alter the futures of agricultural and food workers. The US agricultural economy relies on 72% undocumented immigrants for farm labor, 68% of which were born in Mexico across the militarized border . Without them, our economy would flounder. Without giving them reasonable access to citizenship, we are guilty of abusing their human rights and our food system. The immigration bill must be understood as the nexus for the future of agricultural and food workers’ rights in the United States.
Many immigration coalitions’ initial reaction to the bill early last week was enthusiastic. The Immigration Policy Center released a statement claiming, “This vote reflects how far the country has come in understanding the significance of immigration reform to the health and well-being of the nation as a whole” . The United Farm Workers further called the bill “comprehensive” and an answer to urgent legalization needs in farmworker and grower associations . However, as strict measures such as the Corker-Hoeven amendment were ratified, support declined and many organizations published ambiguous messages . Criticism from Presente.org was prevalent from the beginning, stating that “as advocates for real immigration reform, we cannot, in good conscience, support a bill that’s guaranteed to deepen the crisis for citizens and non-citizens living in border communities” . Similarly, on July 4th the Southern Border Communities Coalition called on its readers “not let the House further strip these rights from border communities, immigrant workers, and families torn apart by the courts” .
Faced with these conflicting messages from partner coalitions, CFJC interns chose to analyze the bill itself and clarify the connections between food, justice, and immigration. While many groups have focused on the harsh security measures and increased border patrol funding, there are other elements of the bill that deserve scrutiny.
To begin, Subtitle B of the Agricultural Worker Program augments the requirements for immigrants to participate in a Blue Card program before granting them such status . The blue card makes immigrants eligible for year-round residency, but individuals must pay a fine, any unpaid taxes, and pass a background check before legalization . The Secretary of State is prohibited from granting such status “unless such person submits eligibility-related security and law enforcement biometric and biographic data.” Biometric data is an identification system of characteristics or traits, including fingerprinting, facial recognition, iris scans, and DNA sequencing that is stored in US government databases . This information is not required of immigrants from Visa Waiver Countries–first world nations such as Germany or Australia .
The Program further amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to establish a “nonimmigrant” agricultural worker program using a W-3 or W-4 visa, which is different from a blue card . This excludes nonimmigrant workers from need-based federal financial assistance and subjects them to sporadic verifications through electronic monitoring systems. These systems mirror the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, an online database that catalogs information about each individual immigrant and stores it indefinitely . By assigning agricultural workers the status of nonimmigrant, they can only commence the road to citizenship after ten consecutive years of working in the United States. After the temporary work season is over each year, nonimmigrants must go back to their country of residence and return to the US the following year. This not only uproots workers from their families and livelihoods annually, but also prolongs the process of attaining citizenship.
The inclusion of the aforementioned mandates in the bill indicates the US government’s desire to maintain a temporary agricultural workforce, but also to continue to deny them federal assistance. Our economy lays claim to all of the capital benefits, and none of the costs, of agricultural workers. In the absence of legalized immigrant status, agricultural and food workers are more susceptible to abuse by employers and have limited access to clean food, water, lodging, and healthcare. These stipulations negate the purported benefits outlined in the bill, making it increasingly difficult for farmworkers to arrive and stay in the US. The question remains, how do we create a just and equitable food system when those who produce our food are not treated with respect?
We should refuse to support a bill that limits basic rights and citizenship for farmworkers and food workers, and challenge Congress to amend S. 744 for humane and just reform.