Have you ever wondered who picked your fruits or vegetables? How did they make the long journe from being on the fields to your kitchen table? Well, the answer is simple. They were picked by farmworkers. However, what you might not have known is that the chances that they are undocumented immigrants are very high. “About half of all crop hands in the United States, more than one million, are undocumented immigrants, according to the Agriculture Department. Growers and labor contractors estimate that the share is closer to 75 percent". This is a large portion of undocumented immigrants that are playing a key role in the success of America. From harvesting apples in Michigan to working in dairy farms of New York and Idaho, or picking strawberries and other vegetables in California--undocumented immigrants are there ensuring that everyone has food on their tables.
Oftentimes, undocumented immigrants experience prejudice and discrimination in their daily life. They are told that they should go back to their country, that they are stealing American jobs, and are constantly being told that they don’t belong here. Instead, we should be thanking them for all their hard work. Undocumented immigrants come to America in search of a better life, for resources they couldn’t find in their homelands, and some are fleeing violence. They are working the jobs that Americans don’t want to have--like being farmworkers.
Americans as Farmworkers
Americans are hesitant to take jobs as farmworkers, especially when it comes to harvesting crops like fruits and vegetables. According to Haspel “There’s a lot of evidence for this, both anecdotal and statistical, including a particularly compelling case study done in North Carolina in 2011. That year, 489,000 people were unemployed statewide. The North Carolina Growers Association listed 6,500 available jobs. Just 268 of those 489,000 North Carolinians applied, and 245 were hired. On the first day of work, 163 showed up, and a grand total of seven finished the season. Of the mostly Mexican workers who took the rest of the jobs, 90 percent made it through to the end.”
This study is a great example that demonstrates and supports the fact that Americans are extremely reluctant to work in the agriculture industry. Harvesting crops is not an easy job to have, farmworkers work in tough and unpredictable conditions. They work hard from sunrise to sunset with minimal breaks. To make matters worse, they must work in either the blazing hot sun or in heavy rain.
Essential Work and Risks
During the pandemic, many undocumented workers were told that they have ‘essential’ jobs. This was confusing because they have been told their whole lives that they are taking opportunities away from Americans. Now, they’re being told that they should continue going to work. For farmworkers, this meant that while others were listening to the ‘stay-at-home order’, they were waking up at 3 AM to start their days. According to Jordan, “In Idaho, where a statewide stay-at-home order began on March 25, dairy owners are scrambling to ensure that the industry’s 8,000 workers, 90 percent of them undocumented, can keep working.
Essential farmworkers were given a letter like the one pictured above. However, the letter only protects them if they are violating the Stay At Home Order. If you are an undocumented farmworker, it doesn’t protect you from being deported. Furthermore, since the Trump Administration hasn’t halted deportations during the pandemic, they carry the risk of being deported. Although it might give them a sense of protection, it isn’t nearly close to what they deserve. Undocumented farmworkers are the building blocks to American society, without them, we wouldn’t have enough people to harvest our produce. For those that say we can build machinery to do it for us, that isn’t as useful for every crop. Vegetables and fruits must be handpicked to reduce bruising that might occur from using machines.
Additionally, as mentioned by Jordan, “The pandemic carries particular risks for agricultural workers. Most do not receive sick pay if they fall ill, and they lack health insurance. The $2 trillion pandemic aid package that passed Congress last week does not offer any assistance to undocumented immigrants.” Many undocumented workers don’t have medical insurance and they won’t be able to afford medical expenses if they become ill. Another major risk is that many farmworkers don’t speak English and aren’t educated on the risks of COVID-19 and their employers aren’t concerned with establishing precautionary measures. Furthermore, the risk of contracting COVID-19 has been reported higher amongst the Latinx/Hispanic population of America and this includes most of our farmworkers.
It’s saddening to see that a global health-crisis had to occur for us to finally realize that farmworkers are essential when they always have been. To add, they aren’t being paid enough for their pivotal role in America. An interesting point is that undocumented farmworkers pay taxes and are considered essential workers but are being left out of essential benefits like the stimulus check. Furthermore, if they claim their children as dependents they are left out as well. How is this fair to them at all? The answer is that it’s not fair. If it weren’t for them who would be picking our fruits and vegetables?
A Farm Workers Salary
Farmworkers have an extremely low income since their work is considered seasonal they struggle to make ends meet. According to Haspel from The Washington Post, “'Between $10 and $12 an hour, generally. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes less. But, because there isn’t year-round work,’” according to Salvador, “'these families are earning $10,000 a year.’” They deserve better wages for the hard work they are doing daily; they're the backbone to American society. When it comes to farm-produced products like fruits and vegetables about ¼ of every dollar that we spend at grocery stores is given to the farmer. Meanwhile, ⅓ of that is given to the farmworker which only ends up being about 8 cents. Overall, undocumented farmworkers are receiving extremely low wages for the hard work that they do every day.
According to an article by Jordan for The New York Times, “Like legions of immigrant farmworkers, Nancy Silva for years has done the grueling work of picking fresh fruit that Americans savor, all the while afraid that one day she could lose her livelihood because she is in the country illegally.” Many undocumented farmworkers are in the same position as Ms. Silva, a 43-year-old immigrant from Mexico who’s been working at clementine groves in south Bakersfield, California; and it's causing them to feel an immense amount of psychological stress. She goes on to mention that, “It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing.” For many undocumented immigrants, this is the case, because their efforts aren’t acknowledged. It’s ironic to say that they’re essential while they are being deported and don’t receive essential benefits. Many of these farmworkers have family and children that depend on them for food and essentials. What would happen to them if their parents got deported? Being a farmworker is not easy and the added stress and fear that they feel isn’t acceptable. They deserve to live without the fear of being sent back to their country.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was a $2 trillion economic relief package meant to help American families through the pandemic. It was signed into law by President Trump on March 27th, 2020. However, many American families were left out of the relief package including undocumented farmworkers. This is because in order to receive the $1,200 stimulus package you have to have a Social Security number (SSN). Many farmworkers work with either a fake SSN or an ITIN number. As mentioned by Stellino, “An ITIN is a number assigned by the Internal Revenue Service to make sure people who are not permitted to receive a Social Security number pay taxes ‘regardless of their immigration status.’” Most immigrants contribute to society by paying taxes.
To put things into perspective, “According to a 2016 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants pay $11.6 billion per year in state and local taxes.” It is unfair for undocumented farmworkers to be working and paying taxes when they aren’t eligible to receive benefits.
Furthermore, according to Stellino, “Individuals with ITINs are “not eligible for all of the tax benefits and public benefits that U.S. citizens and other taxpayers can receive," the immigration group says on its website, "For example, an ITIN holder is not eligible for Social Security benefits or the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).” While many Americans sit at home, undocumented immigrants are working in our fields making sure that we have food on our tables. Meanwhile, COVID-19 doesn’t care if you are a citizen or not, and it doesn’t care whether you have money or not.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, was presented by Democrats on May 12, 2020. According to Link, “The $3 trillion bill proposes increasing unemployment aid, food stamps and small business emergency grants through the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downfall that has followed.” However, it is extremely unlikely that it will pass in a Republican-filled Senate.
Additionally, “The bill would allow workers who are in the country illegally and working in jobs the local government deems 'essential critical infrastructure' to pursue protections that expire 90 days after the public health emergency terminates.” It’s misleading to say that the bill will protect undocumented workers since they will not be allowed to stay in the country permanently and it also doesn't ensure a pathway to citizenship. Furthermore, the protection will expire 90 days after the public health emergency is over meaning that they will once again be at risk of being deported.
As a final point, it’s unfair to mistreat and discriminate undocumented workers. In the meantime, we depend on and are benefiting from them. One viable solution is to increase the cost of produce a few cents but this, in turn, will affect the consumer who is purchasing the products. However, not all American families will be able to afford the increase. In fact, some families can’t afford to buy fruit and vegetables at current prices. Therefore, this brings into question how much more are consumers willing to pay in order to help farmers receive larger wages? On the other hand, we have immigration reform which has been a topic discussed for years.