A Path to Citizenship Is on the Horizon for Undocumented Farmworkers

A Path to Citizenship Is on the Horizon for Undocumented Farmworkers

Congress is considering multiple bills to reform immigration and support frontline food and farm workers simultaneously. We explain the key aspects and challenges with each.

a migrant farmworker carries a box of broccoli in a farm field.

A farmworker carries a box of broccoli in a field on January 22, 2021 in Calexico, California (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Leydy Rangel knows firsthand the sacrifices farmworkers make and the challenges they face. When she’d wake up to go to school in California’s Coachella Valley, her undocumented parents were already in the fields, and by the time she finished her after-school activities, they were preparing to go to bed. Sometimes, they also worked nights, harvesting onions in the evening and working a second job during the day just to scrape by financially.

“A lot of valuable family time is lost because your parents are always working and chasing the harvest,” said Rangel, who is now the United Farm Workers Foundation’s national communications manager. But even worse was the fear that her parents would abruptly be deported to their native Mexico.

“You know that at any point you could be separated, and you would all go in different ways,” explained Rangel, who was born in the United States. “It’s really challenging knowing that if my parents were gone, I would not be able to see them again. Families deserve to be together.”

Three bills could now put undocumented food and farm workers, and other unauthorized immigrants, on the path to citizenship or legal residency—and each bill faces political challenges. The U.S. Citizenship Act, first proposed by President Joe Biden and introduced to Congress in February, would create an avenue for 11 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens and expedite the process for farmworkers, while also advancing labor protections.

Meanwhile, the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, introduced in Congress in March, would establish a track to citizenship for 5 million essential workers on non-immigrant visas and their family members. Lastly, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), which recently passed the House, would provide more than 1 million undocumented agricultural workers with an opportunity to eventually receive legal status.

Although experts say the Citizenship Act is the bill that can make the most significant impact on undocumented immigrants, so far the legislation lacks the bipartisan support needed to get enacted, as does the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act. As a result, lawmakers are likely to take a piecemeal approach and fold components of these bills into legislation introduced in subsequent months that could enjoy broad support, whether related to immigration or the nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

The FWMA, in contrast, has champions on both sides of the aisle—but advocacy groups are not quite as aligned. A previous version of the bill failed to become law two years ago, and some farmworkers and their supporters argue that its provisions create a lengthy and complicated path to legal status for farmworkers. Now in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, it has a real chance of becoming law.

Rangel belongs to the group rallying for its passage, describing the FWMA as “a bipartisan solution.” The legislation would “provide the men and women who harvest all of the food that we eat with the ability to go to work without that fear of not knowing if they’re going to be returning to their families at the end of the day,” she said. “When we talk about farmworkers, we’re talking about highly skilled professional workers, many of whom have decades of experience and have more than earned the ability to apply for legal status.”

The coronavirus crisis drew unprecedented attention to the contributions these workers make to the food chain. Although advocacy groups differ on the best legislative approach to secure legal status, they agree that farmworkers deserve citizenship because of their essential labor for the country. The bills recently introduced in Congress put these workers a step closer to obtaining long-awaited legal and labor safeguards, but they have deepened the debates on immigration reform during a time when focus on the number of migrants crossing the U.S. border has intensified. Farmworkers and their supporters are weighing which of the proposed laws is most likely to get enacted against which one provides the most direct route to citizenship.

The Debate Over the Farm Workforce Modernization Act

Of the three bills that would create a pathway to legal status for farm workers, the FWMA has sparked the most debate because of how long it would take undocumented workers to earn citizenship. For starters, the act would allow unauthorized immigrants who have worked on a farm for a minimum of 180 days over the past two years to apply for “certified agricultural worker status,” a legal status that would prevent their deportation, and which they could renew every five years. But they would have to remain farmworkers for another eight years just to qualify for permanent legal residency.

“I think that our farmworker members, who have sacrificed so much during this last year, are in a position where they’re saying, ‘We just can’t accept a bill that represents this kind of giveaway to the grower lobby at the expense of workers,’” said Sonia Singh, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “It’s not only having to wait up to eight years to not even get citizenship but just basic permanent residency, and that would be eight years tied to the agricultural industry that we know has a very high rate of injury and very low wages.”

Undocumented immigrants who can demonstrate that they’ve been agricultural workers for a decade before the FWMA takes effect would have to work just four more years to request legal status. But many farmworkers lack employment documentation and receive cash wages, so they have no way of proving how long they’ve worked in the industry.

Moreover, advocates have raised concerns that employer recommendations would play an outsized role in the process and that workers who suffer injuries that sideline them from their jobs would be disqualified from applying for legal status.

“We deserve a comprehensive reform that includes a path to citizenship without excluding anyone who deserves to be legally working and contributing to the growth of this country, a country that we consider ours too,” said farmworker Luis Jimenez, president of the New York-based Alianza Agricola, in a statement provided by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “We have already waited a long time to achieve a change; it is time and we are not going to settle for crumbs.”

Another major concern about the FWMA is that it would broaden the H-2A program that permits farmers to employ immigrants as guest workers. H-2A employers are required to pay temporary workers more than the state or federal minimum wage and to cover basic living necessities for them, but a number of these employers have been accused of stealing wages from workers and providing them with substandard meals, housing, and working environments.

Some farmworkers and their supporters also object to the fact that the FWMA would not raise wages for guest workers until the end of 2022. Afterward, wages could not go up by more than 3.25 percent per year. By linking the guest worker program to this legislation, critics contend that the federal government would make it harder for workers to advocate for themselves while enabling the agriculture industry to take advantage of vulnerable guest workers and avoid hiring their counterparts already in the country.

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The FWMA has also drawn criticism because it requires employers to use the E-Verify database system that searches government records to confirm the identities of recent hires, with a goal of preventing undocumented immigrants from seeking work. If E-Verify determines that workers are in the country without documentation, employers are required to fire them, but many companies have found ways to avoid accountability for hiring unauthorized immigrants. And, since E-Verify has been linked to workplace raids, detention, and deportation of undocumented immigrants, farmworker advocates fear that it could jeopardize the safety and well-being of millions of people in the labor force without papers.

“The FWMA affects all of us workers who are in this country with our families,” said Chen Sanchez, a farmworker and member of the Worker Center of Central New York in a statement provided to Civil Eats by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “Specifically, E-Verify is going to affect workers in many ways, one of them is that it will make us more vulnerable to exploitation and to continue to live inhumanly.”

Vanessa Garcia Polanco, a federal policy associate for the National Young Farmers Coalition, which supports all three bills that could create a path to legal status for farmworkers, said that she respects the viewpoints of those opposed to FWMA. She acknowledged that the bill could be more comprehensive, but argued that it would be helpful overall.

“We don’t think the bill is perfect, but we think it will move the conversation toward more protections for farmworkers and undocumented workers, which is the goal,” she said. “There’s a lot missing [from the bill], but it’s better to move the needle a little forward on expanding protections and rights for workers.”

Rather than settle for flawed legislation, FWMA opponents argue for support of a bill that they feel could radically change the landscape for undocumented farmworkers—the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.

Comprehensive Reform with the Citizenship Act

A new national poll of 1,550 voters found that 71 percent of respondents support citizenship for undocumented farmworkers, and the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 sets out to achieve that goal and more. Under the legislation, three types of unauthorized immigrants who meet certain criteria would be immediately eligible for green cards. They include Dreamers (individuals brought to the U.S. as children), temporary protected status holders (who fled civil war, the aftermath of a natural disaster, or other impermanent conditions in their home country), and farmworkers. Other undocumented people could apply for temporary legal status and for green cards after five years, as long as they pay their taxes and pass criminal and national security background checks.

“We think that for the farmworker population, the Citizenship Act is definitely the one that will have the most significant impact in our members’ work and who they work with,” said Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, lead organizer with the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “So, we would like to remain hopeful that this will be the one that moves forward.”

The U.S. Citizenship Act also includes labor protections that would particularly benefit undocumented women, according to Maria De Luna, policy and advocacy director for Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, which represents women farmworkers. She pointed out that the legislation would establish a commission made up of labor, employer, and civil rights groups that would cooperate with worker protection agencies and make recommendations about improving the employment verification process and preventing labor violations. The act would also include provisions to protect migrant and seasonal workers as well as victims of workplace retaliation.

“We know these sorts of labor violations disproportionately impact women, and especially women of color in low-wage jobs,” said De Luna. “We see these critical protections as a sort of initial first step. We really do welcome this much broader vision of comprehensive immigration reform, ensuring that the millions of undocumented people who we call our families or friends or neighbors are able to have a pathway to citizenship.”

The legislation could also make it less difficult for female farmworkers to report sexual assault and other forms of violence they’ve endured in their workplaces, homes, or elsewhere. Many victims of abuse fear they will be detained, deported, and separated from their families if they come forward about their experiences.

“So many farmworker women, including migrant guest workers, suffer unimaginable abuses in their workplaces,” De Luna said. “We know that this is a really big concern, and we know that this bill could help alleviate some of that and could help really address some of those worries.”

The U.S. Citizenship Act might lack bipartisan backers, but farmworker advocates say that the coronavirus crisis has boosted public support for this labor force. Singh asserts that a shift in public consciousness has occurred during the pandemic, making Americans more aware of workers who were largely out of sight and out of mind to them before COVID-19. The attention farm and food chain workers garnered during the pandemic makes her hopeful that legislators will give these undocumented workers a path to citizenship.

Consumers would also benefit from this bill, Ortiz Valdez said. Creating a path to citizenship for food and farm workers will allow them to organize for better working conditions that would help keep the food supply safe. Legal status would also enable workers to advocate for themselves without fear that an employer will have them deported or otherwise jeopardize their well-being.

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“That is why we think that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which proposes to add a path to legalization for up to eight years for some, is way too long to wait,” Ortiz Valdez said. Undocumented people “would be vulnerable to potentially abusive employers and immigration enforcement while waiting for residency.”

Public support for farmworkers might be growing, but De Luna asserts that many decision makers still don’t understand the ins and outs of being a food system worker. She said that it takes an incredible amount of skill, ingenuity, and imagination to cultivate land. But without action to change the legal status of undocumented farmworkers, changing perceptions of the work they do will ultimately mean little.

“There’s so much more to be done to not just change perceptions but to change the . . . protections that farmworkers have or don’t have,” she said. “There’s still much work to be done to ensure that people really recognize the value of that work and what it does for our society.”

Citizenship for a Broadly Defined Group of Essential Workers

The first bill introduced by Senator Alex Padilla (D-California), who now sits in Vice President’s Kamala Harris’s seat, the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act could create a pathway to citizenship for not only undocumented farmworkers but also to other unauthorized immigrants performing essential labor—including as emergency responders, meatpacking plant workers, childcare providers, construction workers, or janitorial staff.

These workers pay roughly $79.7 billion in federal taxes and $41 billion in state and local taxes annually, but their undocumented status barred them from obtaining COVID relief, all while their essential jobs made them more vulnerable to contracting the virus. In addition to current essential workers, the act would cover unauthorized immigrants who lost their essential jobs during the pandemic along with the undocumented relatives of essential workers who died from COVID-19.

“The essential workers that have worked so heroically on the front lines during the pandemic include more than 5 million undocumented immigrants,” said Padilla in a statement. “These heroes have risked their health and their lives to keep our communities safe and our economy moving and they have earned a pathway to citizenship. My parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. My father worked as a short-order cook, and my mom used to clean houses, jobs that would be considered essential today.”

People labeled essential workers need access to essential protections and supports, according to Alianza Nacional de Campesinas’ De Luna. She’s concerned that, a year into the pandemic, these protections haven’t been extended to food system workers. They deserve more than words of appreciation, she stressed—they deserve a pathway to citizenship.

The National Young Farmers Coalition has endorsed the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, in part, because it defines essential workers so broadly that it would create a path to citizenship for a number of food and farm workers. Garcia Polanco said that it might seem like an uphill battle to get the legislation passed, but pointed out that France granted citizenship to its immigrant frontline workers in December. If it’s possible there, it should be possible in the U.S., she argues.

“I always like to point that out this [passing this legislation] might seem impossible, but we also thought it was impossible to survive a year of [COVID],” she said. “We should be using this as an opportunity to restructure and to change the things in the system, so it can be better and stronger, so when another crisis happens, we are more prepared. We know that having more immigrants who have citizenship in the food chain can only make our food chain stronger and increase our resilience toward these events.”

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. THEROOTMATTERS
    Very troubling is the likelihood that obtaining citizenship will require immigrants to work for BigAg corporations who will train them to further destroy the earth's surface, pollute waters, and glut the food markets with toxic foods. Yes, I am this concerned for all human beings of our world being driven to go along with the insanity just to keep fake food on the tables.

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