Friday, April 1, 2011

The Plight of America’s Migrant Farmworkers

By Martha Buttry

Of the total farmworker population in the United States, forty-two percent are migrant and seasonal farmworkers, while many more are former migrants.  Migrant farmworkers pick lettuce in Colorado, apples in Washington, tobacco in North Carolina, and grapes in California, just to name a few, although the largest numbers of migrant farmworkers reside in California and Texas.  While the vast majority of migrant farmworkers hail from Mexico, others come from countries like Perú and Guatemala.  Some migrant farmworkers have their green card, others have a restricted work visa, while others have no documents and live in constant fear of deportation.   But most of these workers—regardless of individual traits, legal statuses, locations, nationality, or age—are deprived of many rights on a daily basis.

Farming is one of the most dangerous industries in the country.  The workers suffer heat stroke in the hot sun, are injured by the machines used during the harvest, and contract deadly diseases caused by their exposure to pesticides used in the field.  A worker I once met in Colorado had lost his eye to the machete used by his companion to cut lettuce.  Another worker, sorting potatoes in a warehouse, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from the forklifts used in the unventilated facilities of his workplace.  While the regulatory regimes of OSHA and FIFRA protect against workplace injuries and pesticides poisoning in a limited sense, the agencies that enforce these regimes are inadequately equipped to protect the entire farmworker population.  Furthermore, workers often fear retaliation from their employers and fail to report violations of the OSHA and FIFRA standards.

Farmworkers also suffer at the hands of the immigration system.  Undocumented workers are at the mercy of the system: they can be deported at a minute’s notice.  Documented workers are not much better off.  H-2B workers are in constant fear of complaining of their employers’ misconduct; for if they complain the employer can choose not to invite them back for the following harvest season.  Even green card holders, or Legal Permanent Residents, can face the wrath of the immigration system.  They, too, have limited rights and can find themselves deported and barred from ever re-entering the United States.  This can occur if they commit a variety of “aggravated felonies,” which may include offenses that are neither aggravated nor felonies.  Even still, these immigrants are thrown into a system where they have no right to an attorney, where government-hired and often biased immigration judges are granted incredible deference, and where much of the relief to deportation is discretionary.

Several years ago, I worked for a statewide program that provided legal services to migrant farmworkers in Colorado.  The lechugeros, or lettuce workers, I met there said they were treated like animals, like ghosts.  They said that they felt like “voluntary slaves,” for they had few rights and few options.  One worker told me, “Nadie sabe quien somos.”  Nobody knows who we are.  “Y lose que saben,” added another, “no les importa.”  And those who know, don’t care.

César Chavez once said, “When the man who feeds the world by toiling in the fields is himself deprived of the basic rights of feeding, sheltering and caring for his own family, the whole community of man is sick.”

To cure this sickness there must be change.  So, it is about time we pay attention.

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