Ricardo Sotelo called his wife, Lupita, three times on June 30, 2015. He repeated the same message at 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.: “I don’t feel good. I really don’t feel good.”

Undocumented farmworkers worked in 100+ degrees to get food on people’s tables. They want federal heat standards and a pathway to citizenship.

On his 38th birthday, Sebastian Francisco Perez, an immigrant from Guatemala, played chess with his nephew. The next day, he went to work at a nursery in a rural Oregon town as the thermometer soared well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius).

By a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, the court ruled that the law — enacted nearly 50 years ago after a campaign by famed organizer Cesar Chavez — unconstitutionally appropriates private land by allowing organizers to go on farm property to drum up union support.

That’s why she decided to take her college graduation photos in the same hot vegetable fields in Coachella, Calif., where she has worked with her parents since she was in high school.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has been President Trump’s most prominent brand, and he’s used the coronavirus pandemic to double down on it by slashing legal immigration in the name of public health and America First. He just signed a proclamation extending his shutdown of new immigration to include both the high-skilled temporary workers often destined for Silicon Valley, and most seasonal nonagricultural temporary workers in fields such as landscaping.

Yet in one area, Trump has continued his policy of the more immigrants, the merrier this year: bringing in immigrant farmworkers. In 2019, his administration approved a quarter-million temporary agricultural visas, known as H-2A or guest worker visas – a 55 percent increase from President Barack Obama’s final year in office. So far this year, the Trump administration is approving H-2A visas at a rate 15 percent faster than last year, and it took steps to make it easier for farmers to hire temporary farmworkers even after the pandemic began.

Why simultaneously accelerate immigration in agriculture while restricting it in other industries? Because U.S. farmers have long found a way to access cheap, foreign-born labor in times of depression and prosperity, xenophobia and openness alike. They have accomplished this not only through political pressure, but by creating a public narrative that Americans naturally won’t do agricultural jobs. And for over a century, U.S. government and society looked the other way as farmers chose to become dependent on migrant labor to keep agricultural wages and conditions far behind other those in other industries.

This story begins in the roaring 1920s, when the United States rapidly urbanized just as Asian and European immigrants were excluded or restricted. U.S. farmers became dependent on Mexican workers, and this continued into the Great Depression. The image of the Joads and other desperate white migrants from The Grapes of Wrath suggests that surely no farmers would have turned to immigrants as a labor source when so many Americans were starving. Yet this was not the case. Farmers believed a labor surplus was the only way they could get work done at affordable wages and that immigrant workers were still a necessary part of the mix.

Reflecting on the 1930s, a Bureau of Agricultural Economics official wrote in 1941 that even in times where the labor market was flooded with aspirants, California asparagus growers believe that only Filipinos or Japanese can cut asparagus properly. White American workers are not supposed to be adaptable to the sugar-beet work of California and Colorado – although they do practically all of this work on the family farms of Utah and Idaho. Southern New Mexico cotton growers … insist upon Mexican workers.

The Depression of the 1930s brought anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment into the center of political discourse for the first time in U.S. history. Local officials conducted high-profile raids that traumatized Mexican communities, and social workers presented unemployed clients with one-way tickets to Mexico. Up to 2 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported or repatriated under pressure during that decade. But even as the U.S. government pushed thousands of people across the southern border, U.S. farmers continued to encourage a small yet steady stream of Mexican migrant workers to come north to their farms.


Indeed, it was precisely during the Depression that U.S. academics and policymakers, acknowledging the persistent demand for Mexican agricultural workers, started to envision a new type of migration category – a third way between open migration and total restriction. These thinkers proposed a temporary migration program, modeled on those France had negotiated with Italy and Poland. The idea was to enshrine in law a system that would allow farmers to get the Mexican labor they needed, while ensuring that these workers, inferior to the whites, both physically and mentally, in the words of economist Glenn E. Hoover, would not degrade America’s racial stock by settling down.

When U.S. entrance into World War II caused farmers to fear rural labor shortages, policymakers turned the idea for a bilateral temporary labor migration agreement into a reality: the Bracero Program, which brought more than 4 million Mexican men to the United States between 1942 and 1964. Labor unions argued that the program shortchanged American workers, including Mexican Americans, by providing subpar conditions and a ready army of strikebreakers, and their push to end the program gained traction by the 1960s.

The Bracero Program ended in 1964 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, yet the demand for these workers continued and undocumented migration simply took Braceros’ place. Often the same Mexican men continued their work for the same U.S. farmers, now as undocumented immigrants. Under pressure from farmers, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to this growing workforce. Furthermore, another wartime guest worker program, which had been used to import Caribbean labor, outlasted the Bracero program and expanded under President Ronald Reagan in 1986 to become today’s H-2A agricultural and H-2B nonagricultural temporary visas.


But many farmers had little incentive to recruit through the official channels when undocumented workers were available. The flow of those workers continued unabated even as anti-immigrant sentiment rose among politically powerful white suburbanites in the 1990s. With bipartisan support, Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to seriously attempt to stop Mexicans from crossing the border to work in the United States.

Yet despite the advance of a restrictionist agenda, it was farmers who won the day. In fact, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched the raids known as Operation Southern Denial in the Vidalia onion fields of Georgia in 1998, the state’s Republican senator jumped into action. Sen. Paul Coverdell accused the INS of interfering with honest farmers who are simply trying to get their products from the field to the marketplace and strong-armed the INS into suspending enforcement during the picking season. When high-profile immigration raids continued under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, agricultural areas were touched more lightly than other places due to political pressure from farmers.

Yet as undocumented workers faced greater difficulty reaching U.S. farms because of border enforcement, farmers’ use of the H-2A and H-2B programs jumped. Under these programs, farmers pick up the tab for workers’ recruitment and transport, and guarantee them a minimum wage set by the Labor Department. While more expensive than hiring undocumented workers, farmers have been willing to pay for agricultural guest workers rather than raise wages and improve conditions to levels that would attract more local workers – particularly after a century of framing such work as unsuitable for Americans.

Immigrants are not and have never been the only people willing to do agricultural work – but they have become the primary group of people willing to do it with the wages and conditions that U.S. farmers have offered. In turn, they are the only ones who can keep our grocery bills as low as we now expect them to be. That’s why in good economic times and bad, welcoming times and anti-immigrant times, farmers whatever their politics have done what it takes to keep the immigrant faucet open. With undocumented immigration all but halted in the pandemic, farmers’ dependence on guest workers is only increasing, regardless of high unemployment or the risk to farmworkers’ health.

That an industry so dependent on immigrant workers has embraced an anti-immigrant president is a contradiction in theory – but not in practice. Despite Trump’s recent sweeping restrictionist moves, we now know that when it comes to agricultural labor, 2020 will be no different from any other moment in the past century, including the Depression and the anti-immigrant crackdown of the 1990s. As before, there is plenty of political will to demonize immigrants but almost none to restrict immigrant agricultural laborers or to change their working conditions for the better.

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Originally published by The Washington Times

Stay-at-home orders have redefined where work happens in America. When the widening coronavirus pandemic shut down entire cities, more than 20 million lost their jobs, and millions more were forced to work from home.

But in farms across America, armies of immigrant farmworkers never stopped. Their work was deemed essential, too critical to be halted during the crisis.

Kneeling on damp soil and fighting the heat, as many as 2.7 million laborers, more than half born outside the United States, are the lifeline of our food security.

The pandemic has raised the stakes, and now these laborers’ work has brought a bittersweet recognition of the women and men going into the fields every day, without whom we would not have food to eat.

Yet these are also some of the most vulnerable communities in America, especially those under the H-2A temporary agricultural program, whose visas are tied to their employers.

Seasonal agricultural workers face tough working conditions. Many lack adequate health care. Many don’t speak English. But they are hired and brought here from thousands of miles away because Americans ultimately do not want to work on farms.

Literally, without this program, Americans don’t eat, said Carlos Ordaz Jr., manager at Rosa’s Garden, a small farm in Mechanicsville, Va.

And just like every immigrant before them, they come for the promise of a better future if they work hard enough. But now, these guest workers also carry the responsibility to feed America.

Additional Reporting by Drea Cornejo in Florida, James Pace-Cornsilk in California and Jose Martnez and Mauricio Villa in Mexico. Animation by Daron Taylor.

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Originally published by Politico

President Donald Trump’s plan to suspend immigration into the U.S. will not apply to foreign farm workers, according to three industry sources familiar with the decision.

Trump tweeted on Monday night that he will sign an executive order to temporarily ban immigration to try and stem the spread of coronavirus. The Department of Homeland Security is reportedly still working on the order. Little information is known about its scope or when it will be signed.

The Agriculture Department is working with the White House to publicly clarify that farm workers will be exempt, according to a lobbyist.

An ongoing labor shortage has led to the agriculture industry increasingly relying on the H-2A guest worker program to fill empty jobs on farming operations. In 2019, the Department of Labor certified more than 250,000 H-2A worker visas, a 10 percent increase from the year before. For farmers to hire seasonal workers from other countries, they must prove that the jobs could not be filled by domestic workers.

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has eased requirements for farmers to use the H-2A program as the pandemic has disrupted the labor supply. The federal government waived in-person interviews for workers looking to get hired as embassies have shut down. Farmers can also hire foreign workers currently in the U.S., and the three-year time limit for workers has been temporarily lifted.

From farm workers to grocery store employees, the agriculture industry has continued running throughout the outbreak. Labor unions representing farm workers say they should be better protected and be provided hazard pay, free testing and coverage for health care costs. Farm laborers work and often live in close conditions, putting them at high risk of contracting the virus.

Employers have long complained that it’s too expensive to employ these workers and lobbied the government to lower wages. The Department of Labor determines how much H-2A workers are paid and sets new rates every year. In 2020, foreign farm workers must be paid at least $14.77 in California and $11.71 in Florida, two major participants in the program.

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