March 31, 2012 would be deceased labor leader and United Farm Workers union founder Cesar Chavez’s 85th birthday; 2012 is the union’s 50th anniversary. In commemoration, the Labor Department named its main auditorium the Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Auditorium and inducted “The Pioneers of the Farm Worker Movement” into its Hall of Honor, a distinction Chavez achieved posthumously in 1998.
The news has been full of stories of honors, ceremonies, and birthday observations. None of these stories did much to analyze Chavez’s achievements or discuss what remained to be done. Trying to answer this question for myself led me to learn about how Chavez fought farm by farm, grower by grower, state legislature by state legislature, to win the improvements in farmworker living and working conditions for which he is justly famed. It also reminded me that there is one issue is more important than arguments over the U.S. role in Afghanistan, the Supreme Court hearings on Obamacare, and the contraception sideshow. It’s immigration.
We haven’t heard much about immigration since there seemed to be GOP debates every day of the week and twice on Sunday. But we mustn’t forget about immigration reform, because an ugly fact about our economy is that agriculture relies heavily on undocumented labor to function. And for Chavez’s dreams for farm workers to become reality, we must figure out how to acknowledge-these workers contribution to our economy without sanctioning their undocumented entry.
A factsheet from the Immigration Policy Center reports between 53% and 75% of the 2.5 million farm workers who work in the U.S. each year are undocumented. Fear of detection and deportation, according to the report on human rights A state of fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina’s tobacco industry issued by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the anti-poverty organization Oxfam America is a prime motivator in these workers’ tolerance of substandard wages and inhumane working conditions. Collective bargaining does not help this population; the provisions of a union contract are only enforceable for documented workers.
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) would have undocumented workers deported and put in the “back of the line” for re-entry. In a time where the job market is only beginning to recover, this “letter of the law” approach might sound appropriate to those who accuse undocumented farm workers of taking jobs from law-abiding U.S. workers. The UFW has exposed the fallacy behind this premise by demonstrating that farm labor is a most U.S. workers would not want. On June 24, 2010, the union launched the “Take Our Jobs” campaign, under which documented workers interested in farm work could go to http://www.takeourjobs.org and sign up for a farm job. Some 4,000 people responded between June 24 and July 10, a fraction of the approximately 14.6 million unemployed at the time, and well short of the 500,000 persons sought.
The other candidates seem to favor a more practical approach. Rick Santorum’s position on immigration is stated in general terms, but both Newt Gingrich and President Obama support similar plans that let undocumented workers with otherwise clean records stay, provided they pay back taxes, some sort of fine, and learn or demonstrate English proficiency. This is the closest any major candidates come to the UFW-endorsed Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2009 (AgJOBS) legislation (S.2611, passed Senate in March 25, 2006) which streamlines the H-2A visa process for future temporary workers and issues “blue cards” or temporary resident status to current qualified undocumented workers who commit to five more years of farm work.
When you think of the conditions farm workers endure so we might have food on our tables, the notion of a free pass on immigration may not be so far-fetched. Read enough about farmworkers’ sufferings, and the prisons that fans of MSNBC’s Lockup series tour weekly seem like a step up. Chavez brought concrete improvements to many farmworkers’ lives, such as health care, a pension fund, better housing, and a credit union, but his greatest accomplishment may have been transforming their plight from a labor problem to a human problem, creating a movement from a union in the process. Reforming the temporary visa process and giving legal status to those who were frustrated by the old system would be a significant victory for that movement and pave the way for more victories to come.