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By Juan Uranga
In the middle of the coronavirus epidemic, the owners of giant corporate farms in California are shouting praise for fieldworkers, most of whom are undocumented immigrants, who harvest their crops. Good gosh, they shout, the nation cannot survive without farmworkers; they are essential workers. Besides, growers ardently profess, they are good, decent hardworking people and we love them.
But they shout to the wrong places and to the wrong people. They shout to the high heavens. Those shouts are useless. God already knows that immigrants are good people. Heck, God’s son was an immigrant Himself. And they shout to the American populace. Those shouts are also useless. A stunning majority of Americans believe that undocumented workers should receive a path to U.S. citizenship, a path which would grant them the employee benefits, that all other workers enjoy.
Here’s to whom they should shout: Republican legislators and the Republican Party. They are the ones who demean undocumented immigrants. They are the ones who refuse to legalize tens of thousands of undocumented immigrant workers who toil under the constant threat of deportation and without any federal benefits. Yet growers provide huge financial contributions to Republican candidates and the Republican Party. And they do so year after year.
Don’t believe me? Here’s something to think about.
Did you know that in 2013, when Republicans still held a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican House leadership refused to allow a vote on an immigration reform bill? The bill had already passed the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Guess which political party garnered the most political contributions from the ag community that year. Yup, the Republican Party.
Does that example go too far back? Want something more current?
In 2014, when Republicans were the majority in the House, Republican congressional leaders elected Kevin McCarthy as the second in command. McCarthy hails from and represents Bakersfield. Bakersfield, as in the Central Valley of California, the region that grows more agricultural produce than any other region in the country.
Last year, after the Republican Party lost control of Congress, McCarthy received a promotion. He is now the Minority Leader, the No. 1 Republican in the House of Representatives: numero uno, the Big Enchilada, the Big Artichoke. McCarthy now shares leadership of the Republican Party in Congress with Senator Mitch McConnell. McConnell is the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans still comprise a majority. Between the two of them, McCarthy and McConnell control the matters on which Congressional Republicans are allowed to vote.
You would think that between the two of them they could strike a deal to legalize California’s immigrant workforce, since McCarthy fashions himself the champion of California agriculture. And, if McCarthy couldn’t convince McConnell, you would think that growers, who swear pious devotion to their workforce, would end their praise of McCarthy.
Not going to happen. Know why? Because the tears that growers shed for farmworkers dry quickly. Despite their fervent defense of their employees, growers continue supporting candidates and a political party that terrorizes their workforce. Their misty eyes are looking in other directions, on matters that they actually care about. Crocodile tears.
Even with utter devotion to the party that denigrates their labor force, growers can still take steps to dramatically improve the quality of life for their workers. They can join others in rural California who want to spur the development of affordable housing for farm workers.
The coronavirus is devastating the farmworker community for several reasons, principally the lack of affordable housing. Farmworkers in rural California live two and three families per unit in units that were built for one. Overcrowding is a function of the gap between the cost of housing and the wages (seasonal wages, not hourly wages) that growers pay.
Farmworkers either get sick at home and carry their illness to their work sites or fall ill in the fields. The virus spreads among multiple families because infected farmworkers are unable to isolate in overcrowded housing units. Each family has its own social networks, and each in turn increases the spread of the disease.
To arrest the alarming rate of pre-vaccine infection among farmworkers, a community must confront the societal stresses that farmworkers face outside of their employment, including a lack of affordable housing.
Does “community” include agricultural employers? I say, “yes,” particularly because they profess to love the farm workers they employ. And growers do not have to address the problem by themselves. They need to form strategic alliances with others who control resources and policies that can be used to alleviate the farmworker struggle. Conversely, those who can access other resources and who can enact policies need to invite growers to join the effort to improve life for farm workers.
I propose that growers and affordable housing advocates join forces to increase the stock of affordable housing for farmworkers. Specifically, I suggest joint advocacy to demand that local jurisdictions use their zoning and permitting processes to insist that developers build housing for the local workforce, instead of high-cost residences for high-income people. This effort would assure that a similar communicable disease disaster does not again happen in the farmworker community. Moreover, it would immeasurably improve the quality of life for a group of residents who will always be essential residents of rural California.
If growers refuse to engage in housing advocacy, nothing will improve. The current coronavirus crisis will end once a vaccine is developed and the urgency of the moment will dissipate. Everyone, including the grower community, will move on. Growers will again have a sufficient labor pool.
I fear that anti-immigrant forces that currently control policy will re-establish the H-2A program, a discredited and historically abused program that allows growers to bring Mexican workers to the U.S., but only for the length of the growing season and only as long as the workers remain employed by the grower who recruited them. The preferable alternative, assuming pro-immigrant allies finally achieve political power, would be immigration reform policies that legalize the immigration status of undocumented workers.
In either event, grower concern for the plight of undocumented immigrant farm workers — the essential workers who helped growers navigate a difficult time — will slip from their hearts, as easily as a fried egg flips on a non-stick pan. Teflon hearts.
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