California farm workers
California farm workers. USDA photo

By Cassandra Sonne

In 2009, the National Agricultural Workers Survey estimated the United States had around 2.5 million farm workers. Determining what percentage of this workforce is undocumented is difficult, with estimates ranging from 48 percent to 70 percent.

However, in 2012, NAWS estimated that 51 percent of farm workers were lawful permanent residents or U.S. citizens, and 1 percent had some other kind of work authorization. The remaining 48 percent of farm workers, some 1.2 million people, are clearly necessary for the functioning of the U.S. agricultural system.

Yet their undocumented status increases their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. Vulnerability involves an individual, household, or population’s ability to survive a problem based on their access to resources.

Opinion logo

In this case, access to documentation will help protect farm workers from abuse and exploitation by allowing them access to legal enforcement mechanisms when health or safety violations occur at their work. Further, undocumented workers are vulnerable even before they begin their jobs, as they must cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 2017, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border cost 412 migrants their lives. Privatization of risk, or understanding risk to be the fault of individual behavior, occurs here as migrants are typically personally blamed and held accountable for the hazards associated with border crossings.

Cassandra Sonne.
Cassandra Sonne.

Yet in reality, it is the responsibility of the U.S. government and employers to secure documentation for all workers on American farms. Ensuring that all migrant farm workers have documentation will reduce their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation while on the job and erase the need for dangerous border crossings.

The U.S. government already has a program to grant visas to migrant farm workers, known as the H-2A “Temporary Agricultural Worker” program. This program is uncapped, which in theory implies that almost every migrant farm worker in the U.S. should be able to receive an H-2A visa. Yet few farm owners take advantage of this program, citing bureaucratic complexity and high expenses.

Immediate reform of the H-2A visa program is necessary to protect the nation’s most vulnerable farm workers, who risk their health and safety daily to provide the food we eat.

The H-2A visa should be reformed in two key ways. First, the H-2A should be expanded beyond jobs that are “temporary or seasonal.” Currently, an H-2A visa typically lasts for less than a year and has a maximum limit of three years. Each extra year requires government approval of an extension form.

This presents a problem in farming sectors that require year-round labor, such as the dairy industry. The H-2A visa should be reformed to last for three years, with extensions also granted in three-year blocks. This would provide more stability for farm workers and reduce the amount of paperwork necessary for farm owners.

Extending the length of the H-2A visa has been proposed before in the Senate and passed with bipartisan support in Senate Bill 744. Yet conservative opposition to the immigration reform and path to citizenship proposed in the bill prevented a vote in the House of Representatives.

The H-2A visa must also be reformed so that is easier for employers to apply for it. Currently, the largest obstacles employers face in applying for H-2A visas are proving that they could not hire American workers instead of foreign workers, paying multiple fees and filing several applications to different agencies, and having to wait months for approval.

With 72 percent of farm workers in 2009 being foreign born, and with many farm owners being unable to find American farm workers following the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, it is clear that most Americans are simply unwilling to do farm labor.

The requirement to prove that foreign labor is not being prioritized over American labor should be scrapped, as it only adds a bureaucratic barrier to H-2A visa applications. Further, the application process should be streamlined, with applications going to only one agency and thus requiring only one fee.

This should decrease turnaround times, allowing employers to receive H-2A visas for their workers on shorter notice in times of high labor demand.

Increasing the number of farm workers with documented status should improve their working conditions. Employers who hire H-2A visa workers must comply with Department of Labor standards, which include health, safety, housing and payment protections.

Having documented status will not solve farm workers’ exposure to dangerous pesticides, injuries from constant bending and picking, nor psychological abuse from demeaning supervisors, to name only three health risks farm workers face. Yet documentation status will help empower workers to report poor conditions.

The burden should not fall on farm workers to fix the structural problems of agribusiness, including the pursuit of profit at the cost of farm worker health. However, farm workers should at least feel safe speaking up when they witness exploitation and abuse.

The government should act as a positive force to improve their labor conditions rather than as an enforcer of the threat of deportation that employers can wield when workers complain about unjust and unhealthy conditions.

Senate Bill 744 makes clear that bipartisan support for H-2A visa reform is feasible.

Making it easier for employers to provide documentation status for their workers should not be a controversial piece of legislation, especially when the continued existence of the U.S. agricultural system has been proven to depend on migrant farm workers.

Anti-immigration sentiment has stalled such legislation since 2013. Now, more than ever, support for H-2A visa reform is crucial to force Congress into taking the first step in improving the conditions of migrant farm workers.

Cassandra Sonne, who grew up in Del Mar, lives in Berkeley where she is a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in conservation and resource studies with a focus on environmental governance, communication, and wildlife conservation.