Undocumented Workers Suddenly More ‘Essential’ to U.S. Than Ever

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, most Americans are now under orders from their state and local authorities to shelter in place and leave home only for essential services. These unprecedented measures are intended to limit face-to-face contact with people who may unknowingly be infected with the virus, thereby “flattening the curve” of new cases. As a result, daily life has changed dramatically for millions of people who have been forced to convert basements and guest rooms into home offices so they can conduct business while observing the “social distancing” that is critical to stopping the spread of the virus. So far, these self-isolation strategies appear to be working, as the rate of new infections drops in many of the nation’s hardest hit areas.

But for over a million undocumented immigrant farmworkers across the country, social distancing within the comfort of a home office is a privilege that is out of reach. As spring settles in and fruit and vegetable crops mature, many laborers tasked with handpicking the valuable produce that is shipped to grocery stores, schools, and restaurants every day have been labeled “essential” by the farms that employ them. Some workers have even been given letters from their supervisors classifying them as “essential to the food chain,” an irony that is not lost on immigrants who have spent years evading arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. “It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” explained undocumented Mexican immigrant Nancy Silva, who works as a clementine picker in California, to The New York Times. [See Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic by Miriam Jordan, New York Times, 03.Apr.2020.]

For Silva and her fellow undocumented farm workers, their newfound essential status has given them a welcome reprieve from the threat of apprehension by ICE, which announced last month that it would “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture” in the wake of the pandemic and target arrests on immigrants who commit crimes or threaten public safety. But they remain anxious that the congested conditions in the fields and packing plants where they make their living could place them at higher risk for contracting the virus. These precarious working environments are not expected to evolve anytime soon, as most produce must be hand-picked as opposed to machine harvested to avoid bruising. Wages for this physically demanding and dangerous work remain crushingly low, even as many industrial farms complain of labor shortages due to an overall aging U.S. workforce and an increase of immigrant deportations in recent years. [See The High Cost of Cheap Labor by Brian Barth, Modern Farmer, 21.Feb.2020.]

Some industrial farms are fighting for better treatment of their undocumented workers. Hector Lujan is chief executive of the berry-growing conglomerate, Reiter Brothers, and has been lobbying Congress to pass a bill allowing for legalization of the nation’s undocumented immigrant farmworkers. He told the New York Times he is hopeful, “Maybe one of the benefits of this crisis is that [immigrant farmworkers] are recognized and come out of the shadows.” But undocumented immigrant laborers and their supporters face an uphill battle in this quest for fair pay, safer working conditions, and awareness of their contributions to our food supply. U.S. borders have become increasingly militarized over the past several decades, making it harder for immigrants to cross in and out of the country as needed for harvest seasons. This means many of them must live and work permanently in the United States, even as their illegal status often leaves them at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who exploit their labor. And while Congress has repeatedly attempted to overhaul our byzantine immigration system, it has yet to agree on any measures that would allow a path to legal permanent residency for our nation’s undocumented immigrants. This political gridlock has only been exacerbated by the Trump Administration, which has made xenophobic rhetoric against immigrants and ramped up deportations of undocumented workers a cornerstone of its policies. Meanwhile, more than a million immigrants will rise early tomorrow to pick, pack, and ship the fruits and vegetables that line the shelves at our grocery stores, toiling to help feed a country that excludes them from the American dream. [See Coronavirus is Forcing the GOP to (Tacitly) Admit its Ideology is Delusional by Eric Levitz, Intelligencer, 07.Apr.2020.]


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