Business & Economy

Farm workforce act: A path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers, or indentured servitude?

At a webinar on Thursday, July 22, 2021, activists protested the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would grant undocumented farmworkers legal status and a path to citizenship.

Several Vermont immigrant rights organizations are protesting the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would grant undocumented farmworkers legal status and a path to citizenship.

At a protest webinar on Thursday, activists said the bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March, would effectively limit farmworkers’ rights to unionization and legalization and trap them in a position of economic vulnerability akin to indentured servitude. 

About 800 Latino immigrants work on Vermont dairy farms, according to Kelly Dolan, the Vermont Migrant Education Program coordinator at the University of Vermont. Unlike vegetable and fruit growers, dairy workers are not eligible for H-2A temporary work visas, and most are undocumented. 

Under the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, undocumented immigrants who had worked in agriculture in the U.S. for at least 180 days in the two years before the passage of the bill could apply for a new status: certified agricultural worker. Those who achieved that status, and had worked in agriculture for 10 years prior to passage, would need to work four more years to qualify for legal permanent residence. 

The Vermont dairy industry has a very high turnover rate, and few would meet those length-of-service requirements, according to Abel Luna, an organizer at the farm worker advocacy group Migrant Justice and a former farm worker himself.

Immigrants who have worked in agriculture for less than 10 years would have to work eight more after achieving certified agricultural worker status before they could qualify for permanent residence.

“We see that as a complete disregard for our humanity,” Luna said at Thursday’s webinar. “We do not think that this is a solution. This is just another way for our food system to continue to abuse workers, under a different name.” 

Undocumented workers in Vermont face a wide range of occupational and health hazards and are vulnerable to abuse from their employers, according to a study conducted by Dr. Bindu Panikkar and Mary-Kate Barrett, a University of Vermont professor and graduate, respectively.

They often receive less than the minimum wage, have their pay withheld, and work long hours without breaks or time to sleep. They suffer from high rates of injury with few protections or safety training, and may live in substandard housing, the study showed.

These conditions place great strain on their mental health. A recent study by UVM researchers found that nearly 40% of Latino dairy workers in Vermont experience high levels of stress that significantly affect their health.

The certified agricultural worker status would apply only to workers who came to the U.S. before the bill’s passage. For future workers, the bill would expand the H-2A temporary work visa program, including allowing dairy workers to qualify where they previously could not. 

But immigrant rights groups say H-2A is not the way to go either. Employers sponsor H-2A visas, meaning that, if a visa-holder loses that job, that person also loses their status and would face deportation. 

Activists say this condition places immigrants in a very vulnerable position where they cannot organize or protest employer abuses. 

“What this bill is asking us to do is just to shut up, to stay quiet, to not speak up and to allow our human rights to continue to be violated,” Luna said. 

To employ workers on H-2A visas or in the proposed certified agricultural worker program, employers would have to list all of their employees and their information in an electronic verification system similar to the E-verify Program.

E-verify checks the identities of newly employed workers against government records and flags people who entered the country illegally. Activists say E-verify leaves even legal workers vulnerable, as the data can be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and with the Border Patrol if they lose their status for any reason. 

The bill passed the House in March with bipartisan support, including that of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. In a statement to VTDigger, Welch called the bill “a first step” that “moves us forward in a positive direction toward addressing our broken immigration system.”

The bill is unlikely to pass in the Senate, where it would need the support of at least 10 Republicans, according to Liz Kessler, a member of the Community Voices for Immigrant Rights steering committee and a webinar panelist.

Senate Democrats on the Budget Committee, led by the committee chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., plan to include a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants in the Senate infrastructure bill

The bill, which Sanders said should be ready for the floor in early August, would need the support of half of the Senate and the vice president to pass. 

Members of the immigrant rights groups represented at the webinar said they were hopeful about Sanders’ plan, though no details about the allocation of $150 billion Sanders is proposing for immigration policies has been announced.

“This is an ongoing struggle,” said Ashley Smith, a member of Community Voices for Immigrant Rights and host of the webinar. “Even if we do win a victory, it opens up new horizons to fight for more and more ambitious reforms.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated where the bill passed in March with bipartisan support.

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