FJ Blog

Friday, 02 October 2015

The Pope calls for Immigration Reform and Boehner Quits
Last week Pope Francis visited New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC where he spoke at the White House and to Congress. The Pope spoke passionately about welcoming immigrants and refugees and treating them with dignity.

Among the events surrounding the Pope’s visit, We Belong Together organized the 100 Women, 100 Miles Pilgrimage, in which 100 mostly-immigrant women walked from a detention center in York, Pennsylvania to Washington, DC to greet the Pope and to demand that migrants be treated with dignity and respect. Along the way, the women met with farmworker members of CATA, the Farmworker Support Committee, to dialogue about successful organizing campaigns among excluded workers.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), a Catholic, had invited the Pope to speak to Congress. The day after the Pope’s speech, the Speaker announced that he is retiring from Congress at the end of October. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is favored to become the new Speaker and there is likely to be a more competitive race to succeed him as Majority Leader.

As you may remember from previous updates, Kevin McCarthy represents Bakersfield and other areas in Kern County, CA, a district that is 35% Latino and home to many farmworkers. McCarthy has been the target of many protests pushing for immigration reform organized by the United Farm Workers, the UFW Foundation and other groups, but he has not expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The change in leadership is not likely to change the prospects for getting a CIR bill passed in the House nor to change the way Congress functions. The divisions in the Republican Party remain and McCarthy is likely to face the same challenges and obstacles to passing legislation as Boehner.

On Wednesday, the last day of the fiscal year, Congress passed legislation to temporarily fund the government for FY 2016. Despite efforts by some conservative lawmakers to defund Planned Parenthood at the risk of forcing a government shutdown, Congress passed a government spending bill through December 11th when it will have to revisit the budget fight. Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) attempts to block the funding bill were stopped procedurally by Republican leadership and most of the other GOP Senators who are apparently tired of his antics.

New Bill Offers Undocumented Immigrants Access to Healthcare
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), an ardent advocate for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, introduced the Exchange Inclusion for a Healthy America Act of 2015 on Wednesday, which would expand health insurance access to millions of immigrants, including over a million farmworkers and their family members. The bill would provide undocumented immigrants with equal access to the health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, including federal subsidies, if they are otherwise qualified for them. Farmworker Justice applauds the bill, which would have a great impact on the health of farmworkers and their families. While the bill is unfortunately not expected to move very far in this Congress, it sends a strong message about the need for a humane, fair approach to immigrants.

North Carolina Seeks to Ban Municipalities’ Community Trust Policies
The North Carolina legislature passed an anti-immigrant bill that would ban local government’s community trust policies that prevent local law enforcement officers from asking about a suspect’s immigration status and sharing immigration information with federal authorities. The bill would also limit the type of identification cards that government agencies may accept. Some law enforcement officers have stated that the inability to accept IDs from embassies and other institutions will require them to arrest people for driving without a license rather than issuing tickets. The bill would be harmful to communities as immigrants who are victims and witnesses of crimes will be less likely to come forward if they are unable to trust law enforcement officers. The Governor has not yet signed the bill. Contact the NC Justice Center for more information.

Farmworker Labor News

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Delano, California grape strike and boycott, when Larry Itlong and Pete Velasco led Filipino American farmworkers in a strike and asked the mostly Latino union led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to join them. The two groups would later merge and form the United Farm Workers Union. The United Farm Workers held an event to commemorate the event in Delano.

Congratulations to the brave farmworker women and their attorney, Victoria Mesa, who won a $17.42 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Moreno Farms in Florida.

Farmworker Justice is pleased that the EPA issued an improved Worker Protection Standard (WPS) Monday and that it includes many important new protections from exposure to pesticides for farmworkers. Farmworker Justice has worked for many years to improve the WPS in collaboration with many organizations. Read Farmworker Justice’s statement here.

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Friday, 25 September 2015

The Migration Policy Institute held a briefing on September 16, 2015 titled “ What's New in Farm Labor? Immigration and the Agricultural Sector.” A recording of the briefing can be found here. The speakers included Philip Martin, Chair, UC Comparative Immigration & Integration Program, University of California, Davis; Tom Hertz, Economist, Rural Economy Branch, Resource and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President, Industry Advocacy and Research, AmericanHort. Unfortunately, the panel on farm labor and immigration did not include a speaker providing the farmworker perspective, though Farmworker Justice’s Director of Immigration and Labor Rights, Adrienne DerVartanian, had the opportunity to speak briefly from the audience to identify issues important to farmworkers regarding the data and analysis.

The briefing largely focused on data trends in the farm labor market and whether there are indications that the farm labor market is tightening. The briefing also examined the potential impact of legalization of undocumented immigrants on retention of farmworkers as well as a brief discussion of the H-2A guestworker program and future-flow policy proposals.

Dr. Martin provided basic demographic data about the agricultural workforce, much of it derived from the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) and USDA data. Since 2004, agricultural employment has increased by about 6%. He noted the difficulty of quantifying the number of farmworkers and estimated roughly 1.2 million farm labor jobs and roughly 2.4 million farmworkers ( based on California’s Unemployment Insurance data of roughly 2 farmworkers for every full-time equivalent employee). However,, the rate of undocumented immigration has slowed. The NAWS reveals that there are fewer newcomers in agriculture (workers in the US for less than one year) with a drop from 20% in 2000 to 2% of the agricultural workforce in the latest NAWS data (2011-12). Roughly half of the current agricultural workforce is undocumented, with about 2/3 of foreign-born farm workers lacking immigration status. The remaining farmworkers are about 33% citizens, 18% lawful permanent residents and 1% having some other kind of work authorization. The workforce is also aging: the average age is now 37 and farmworkers tend to be more settled. More NAWS data is available in our factsheet. According to Martin, this data in combination with some other trends provide some indication that the labor market is tightening.

In addition to the above data, Martin pointed to an overall increase in farmworker income. Martin noted that while the data on wages indicates that wages are on average rising slightly, the data is “spotty” and inconsistent; with increases varying from year to year and state to state. Martin noted that the primary increase in income comes from an increase in the number of weeks worked per year, rather than a significant increase in the hourly wage. Tom Hertz pointed to evidence of a modest rising real hourly wage increase for farmworkers as compared to other workers with low education levels— 7% since 2001 compared to -2% for convenience store workers— but also noted the inconsistent data Martin had flagged. Unfortunately, despite this evidence of modest increases, farmworker wages are still very low, with an average wage of just $9.31 across the country or about $15,000-$17,000 per year, and with very little access to any benefits such as health insurance or paid sick leave. 

During the discussion on the tightening labor market, Prof. Martin pointed out that economic incentives in agriculture may create artificial labor shortages with farmers requesting too many workers and contractors promising too many workers too soon. This is how several agricultural counties in California can have unemployment rates over 20% with growers still claiming a “shortage.” Martin also presented data showing that growers in California are increasingly using farm labor contractors to supply their labor. Since 2007, more workers are being brought to California farms by farm labor contractors than are being hired directly.

Prof. Martin raised the question of whether increasing wages actually works, pointing to the belief among many farmers that increasing wages doesn’t attract workers (he questions whether increased wages attracts new workers or merely shifts workers between farms.) This is one place where a worker perspective in the discussion could have been helpful. It’s hard to imagine how increasing wages and offering other benefits would not attract workers; indeed, it is the very premise that drives much of the private labor market. Regelbrugge raised a concern about the feasibility of increasing farmworker wages, noting the global nature of the agricultural market and the increase of imports. Martin’s research actually includes a study noting that a 40% increase in farmworker wages poses little threat to US consumers or the export market, and would only increase US consumer household spending by about $16 per year. Additionally, consumers are growing increasingly conscious about the conditions under which their food is produced, as illustrated by supply chain projects such as the Equitable Food Initiative and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Foods, both of which address wages and working conditions by working with corporations at the top of the supply chain.

Regarding H-2A workers, Martin noted the growth in the H-2A program, particularly in Washington and California, which grew from 4,400 worker positions certified in 2012 to 9,000 positions certified in 2014 and 3,000 H-2A positions certified in 2012 and 6,000 in 2014, respectively. Overall, the program has grown from roughly 75,000 positions certified in FY07 to an estimated 130,000 positions certified in FY15. Martin noted that many employers value their H-2A workers because they are “loyal” and do not switch to higher paying employers. Of course, H-2A workers have no choice but to be loyal because their nonimmigrant visa and ability to remain and work in the United States is tied to their employer. This dependence on their employers not only creates a market distortion but it leaves H-2A workers extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Because H-2A workers often pay recruitment fees to come to the United States, their debt can make them even more desperate to please their employers. As a result, H-2A workers will often work to the limits of human endurance to keep their employers --even the law-abiding, good employers—satisfied. Other elements of the H-2A program also cause H-2A employers to prefer their H-2A workforce to the domestic workers, including their ability to pick workers based on age, gender and race; the exclusion of H-2A workers from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, one of the main federal protections for farmworkers; and the exclusion of H-2A workers from social security and unemployment taxes.

Tom Hertz also examined the impact legalization has had on farmworkers’ decisions to remain or leave agriculture and on their wages. At Farmworker Justice we have prioritized the issue of immigration reform because the undocumented status of the majority of farmworkers is a major contributing factor to the low wages, poor conditions and extensive illegal practices in agriculture. We believe immigration reform with a path to citizenship that includes the current undocumented and H-2A farmworkers is essential to stabilize the agricultural workforce and improve wages and living and working conditions for farmworkers

There is an assumption among some that farmworkers obtaining immigration status will leave agriculture. As a result, AgJOBS and other agricultural immigration compromises have included future work requirements for agricultural workers and have expanded employer access to guestworker programs. We believe many farmworkers value and enjoy their work, but simply want to be treated with respect and be able to support their families by earning a living wage with benefits. Moreover, many farmworkers may not have the networks, education or English skills needed to obtain many other jobs. Hertz’s extensive analysis of data shows that employer fears are likely overblown.

The data presented by Dr. Martin and Dr. Hertz are helpful in understanding the complicated nature of the US farm labor force. Immigration reform policies in agriculture addressing the future flow of immigrant farmworkers must strike a balance between ensuring enough labor while encouraging a stable agricultural workforce through higher wages and better working conditions for farmworkers and year-round (or closer to year-round) employment. Essential to these goals are a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that includes farmworkers and their families, and policies that offer equal rights and promote respect and dignity for all farmworkers.

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Thursday, 24 September 2015

September 27th marks the observance of National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The special focus of the day is to bring more awareness to the burgeoning problem of HIV/AIDS in the gay community and to encourage individuals to seek testing, treatment and care. In many farmworker communities this is a day that passes much as any other, with a focus on the work at hand, and the many obligations that accompany long hours spent in the field. HIV and AIDS aren’t subjects that are easily or frequently discussed in the open.

There is no data regarding the number of LGBT individuals in the farmworker community. However, outreach workers, clinicians, and researchers who provide health care and public health interventions to farmworkers know from experience that LGBT people exist within the community, and that many face enormous challenges in accessing care, finding support, and feeling safe.  LGBT “invisibility” within the farmworker community stems from strong cultural and religious taboos regarding sex in general, and sexual and gender minority identities specifically. It is common for LGBT persons to hide their identity in order to protect themselves from shaming, assault, and isolation from their families and communities.

The stress caused by hiding one’s identity and dealing with stigma has been associated with higher rates of depression, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, and unsafe sexual behavior in LGBT people. LGBT farmworkers who are “out” to their employers risk job termination or demotion, and harassment from co-workers. A 2009 story by the California Report, a public radio show, illustrated the challenges faced by openly LGBT farmworkers. A transwoman farmworker related her experience in the fields while transitioning from male to female. Her boss started verbally harassing her; later her boyfriend, who also worked at the asparagus packing house where she worked, was attacked by other supervisors. Finally, she was demoted from supervisor to the assembly line. Unfortunately, this story is not unusual for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender farmworkers working in the fields.

These challenges create additional barriers for LGBT farmworkers seeking preventive measures, testing, or ultimately HIV/AIDS treatment and care. National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day presents an important opportunity for outreach workers to step into their communities and offer this critical information on prevention, testing and treatment to all farmworkers.

Recently Farmworker Justice issued a brief detailing the challenges faced by LGBT farmworkers in their communities.

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