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Farm Labor

On Wednesday, April 26, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) entered an indoor mushroom farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Witnesses said the agents carried photos of four men, none of whom were present. They arrested twelve people. The owner of the farm said the agents never showed him a warrant.

The incident shook agricultural communities around the country. President Trump’s stance on immigration has already caused anxiety among business owners and farmworkers nationwide. According to Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, Farmworker Justice, as much as 70 percent of the agricultural workforce in the United States is undocumented. Could a widespread immigration crackdown start on the farm?

“We know that every time we have a glass of wine, or a delicious apple, or open up a yogurt, that immigrant hands have touched that.”

“We don’t know that there have been other raids on agricultural properties quite like that, but we and others all over the country are afraid that that is what’s going to happen,” Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said Tuesday, in a press call about coming legislative efforts. “They’re already arresting people in farmworker communities around the country. In Oregon, they’ve arrested several people,” he added. “There’s great fear.”

In an effort to protect farmworkers from the threat of deportation, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) has introduced a bill called the Agricultural Worker Program Act. If passed, the legislation would allow undocumented agricultural workers who have worked in the U.S. for at least 100 days in the past two years to apply for a “blue card.” Blue card holders will then have a clear path to a green card: they can either work in agriculture for 150 days per year over three consecutive years, or 100 days per year over five consecutive years.

“It’s pretty simple: Foreign hands are going to pick our food that we eat every day in foreign countries. Or foreign hands can pick that food in the United States of America.”

This legislation is almost identical to the agricultural component of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act that passed in the Senate and died in the House in 2013. Feinstein said in Tuesday’s call that the blue card had wide support during the 2013 negotiations (though, she didn’t say whether that support was bi-partisan). “I sat through all the hearings. We did 300 amendments. But there was not a single amendment ever proposed to the agriculture part of the bill,” she said.

Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL) said on the same call that he plans to introduce the legislation in the House sometime in the next week. “Americans, we wink and nod every day. We know that every time we have a glass of wine, or a delicious apple, or open up a yogurt, that immigrant hands have touched that. There’s no way that anyone can not know that,” he said, adding that a crackdown on undocumented agricultural labor would lead to a drop in domestic farm production. “It’s pretty simple: Foreign hands are going to pick our food that we eat every day in foreign countries. Or foreign hands can pick that food in the United States of America.”

That sentiment has been echoed elsewhere. Senator Feinstein mentioned that some Central Valley farmers are considering leasing land in Mexico and moving their operations south of the border. Also on the call with Feinstein and Gutiérrez was Shah Kazemi, owner of Monterey Mushrooms, the largest mushroom farm in the country. He that he’s cut back production by 12 percent in California, 15 percent in Illinois, and 6 percent in Florida due to labor shortages.

“We would not be afraid to go to the store, or to ask for help.”

For many workers, blue card status would mean they no longer have to live in fear of run-ins with ICE agents. “We’re afraid, after doing all this work, that on the way home to see our children we’re going to be separated from our families,” Lourdes Cardenas, a grape industry worker with 14 years of U.S. farm experience, said on the call. “It doesn’t just affect us. It affects our children as well.”

Twenty-five-year resident Sagrario Arellano said that a blue card would improve access to basic services like healthcare and education. “We would not be afraid to go to the store, or to ask for help in processes from local agencies—something as simple as going to the bank and processing our checks, and not being afraid that ICE will be waiting there to pick us up and deport us,” she said.

“Automation is not in our future.”

Opponents of immigration reform in the agricultural sector have pointed to mechanization as a solution to the farm labor shortage. But Kazemi disagreed. “Automation is not our future,” he said, adding that technology is years away from replacing workers in mushroom farming.

Of course, many proponents of this bill would like to see a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform. “This bill doesn’t have everything that we farmworker-advocates want,” said Goldstein. “But to achieve compromise in Congress on immigration policy is extremely difficult.”

Even so, this bill could draw broad bi-partisan support: The Farm Bureau, whose president Zippy Duvall has visited the White House twice in the last three months, supports blue card-type programs. And Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farmworkers of America, thinks this piecemeal legislative strategy is one that could “reignite the discussion on fixing our broken immigration laws in this country.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the bill will gather momentum in Congress. But Representative Gutiérrez is confident the votes are there. “We could pass this bill today if they simply gave us a vote. That’s how many Republicans exist that are our allies in this fight.” 

H. Claire Brown

Claire Brown joins The New Food Economy after working on the editorial team at Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. She won the New York Press Club's Nellie Bly Cub Reporter award in 2017. Follow her at @hclaire_brown.