Photo credit David Bacon,

Photo credit David Bacon,

This past summer the city of Fresno, California erected a monument to commemorate a tragic event: the deaths of twenty nine migrant farmworkers and three border patrol agents in the crash of a US government deportation plane in 1948.  This event was etched into the American cultural landscape by Woody Guthrie in the song “Deportee.” Guthrie said that he wrote that song in large part to give names (albeit fictitious) to the dead because the major national media simply labeled them “deportees.” This was a time when our nation viewed migrant farmworkers, or Braceros, as expendable, exploitable and anonymous; Guthrie strove to call attention to the inhumane fashion in which our nation conducted its agricultural work.  Sixty-five years ago, under the Bracero program, farmworkers would work for short periods of time in the US and would then be deported upon the end of the program.  There was no organized labor representation and the workers signed contracts in English which they could not read.  Due to the gross inhumanity and one sided nature of the program, it was ended in 1964 when the growing movements for equal rights and immigrant rights began to change the landscape.

As we teeter on the edge of losing a chance at immigration reform, even some of our most ardent allies have called for SB 744 to be divided into pieces.  President Obama has signaled his support for a piecemeal approach as long as the important parts get done.  If the House is only willing to address reform in a piecemeal fashion, then we as advocates must push the most just and comprehensive pieces forward first.  It has been clear from the Senate bill that a lengthy path to citizenship and some other decent reforms will be tied to further ineffective and inhuman border security policies.  The bill’s Corker-Hoeven amendment, which is part of the Senate-passed bill, calls for an exponential increase in border patrol staff and the use of drones and other high tech military tools.  Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke rightly labelled this a “bonanza” to the defense industry which would “definitely result in more death and suffering” on the border.  In order to protect border communities and provide for basic human rights for those migrating, we must admit that the Corker-Hoeven amendment will not improve our immigration system and as ACLU legislative counsel Joanne Lin writes would “be simply devastating for border communities,” and focus our efforts on just and humane immigration reform.

The rights of immigrants and the positive alteration of our immigration laws means providing a smooth legalization process, an end to the  draconian aspects of IIRIIRA which have destroyed so many families, and a renewed focus on family unity. We must also press Congress to make sure that immigrant workers are protected, both for their own sakes but also to make sure that there is an equal playing field with US workers, which does not result in further unemployment for those already here.   If done well, reform should result in greater diversity and cultural growth for the US as well as job creation.

The agricultural reform aspects of SB 744 should be at the top of the list for the House no matter how it decides to pass immigration legislation.   SB 744’s groundbreaking provisions, while not perfect, are the result of long negotiations between major agricultural interests and agricultural unions.  These negotiations resulted in wages which do not threaten other workers and provides safeguards for workers to “port” so that they are not tied to one employer and mistreatment which often results from lack of mobility.

S. 744 also allows for those who remain as farmworkers to adjust their status on an expedited path.  Beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative are also entitled to an expedited path to adjustment.  Both these groups have been the subject of deserved sympathy from both parties over the past decade.  This newfound respect for the immigrant farmworker has been largely overlooked in news coverage about the bill but is crucial.

To remain intact, these provisions depend on strong support from labor and industry.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte has proposed his own agricultural bill which unfortunately will not lead to a path to citizenship or permit portability.  It also strips workers of the right to file an unfair labor claim, which not only takes away a fundamental right but also inherently creates an unequal employment situation to that of a U.S. worker who cannot be stripped of these rights.

One especially chilling section of Goodlatte’s bill is to “decrease the access of Legal Aid” to immigrants.    In the case of farmworkers, this bill decreases the ability of workers to obtain legal representation for wage violations which are abundant, ranging from simple disputes to outright wage theft.  At the same time, Goodlatte calls for a decrease in inspection, oversight and regulation.   As someone who worked as a law clerk with migrant farmworkers, I have seen growers refuse legal aid attorneys access to workers, sites and housing.   This unconscionable provision would force farmworkers to labor in remote areas with no protection.  This would result in employers getting away with large scale violations and subjects immigrant labor to a level of serfdom which harkens back to Bracero days.  What is particularly disturbing is that U.S. residents and citizens laboring alongside immigrants would have access to legal aid while their immigrant co-workers would not. This two tiered system would not only lead to widespread labor violations and exploitation but also would greatly harm U.S. workers by essentially creating an indentured work force, exploitable with no recourse.  It is simply unacceptable to even consider this provision.

While there are many provisions in SB 744 which should be eliminated or radically improved, the farmworker provisions are a highlight as they demonstrate that mutual interest between labor and industry can lead to progressive immigration reform which supports workers, both domestic and immigrant, the industry and the nation as a whole.  As advocates for just immigration reform, we need to express our support for this crucial alliance and tell both sides how strongly we support it.   We owe it to those lost in Los Gatos and all of the other migrant farmworkers who have fed our nation for years.

Written by Mark Shmueli, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee