Farmworkers harvest vegetables near Salinas. Photo by Chris Stone

Traveling the nearly 500 miles from Washington through New York to Boston by car, you won’t see many agricultural workers tending or picking crops.

The opposite is true on a drive of the same length from San Diego to Sacramento. Starting in San Diego you see strawberry, tomato, avocado, and flower farms, then bean fields in Orange County, followed by more avocados, strawberries, beans and vegetables in Ventura and Santa Barbara, and finally the agricultural abundance of Fresno and Kern Counties, the two most productive farm counties in the world.

What the travelers see is California feeding the entire country. What they also see are thousands of Mexican farmworkers, almost all illegally in the United States, tending and picking the crops that feed the country and are exported around the world.

These aren’t the vast mechanized wheat and corn fields of the Midwest that are the most productive the world has ever seen. That’s because fruits and vegetables still require the hard work of individual human pickers.

Machines harvest can wheat and corn, but people are still needed to harvest strawberries, walnuts, almonds, lettuce, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, bananas, melons, and all types of vegetables. There are machines that can shake grapes off their vines, but most of California’s crops are harvested by hand.

Tomatoes were specially bred by the University of California to be picked by machine in order to reduce labor, but they tasted like carboard and didn’t catch on.

One of the few positive effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is that California’s otherwise illegally present workers have been generally acknowledged to be “essential workers.” 

Congress is planning to recognize these essential workers with a bill that would set up a special category for essential farm workers who don’t have police records, aren’t medical threats, and have a history of farm employment. Those workers who qualify will be eligible for a work permit — a type of green card that will legalize their presence.

There are an estimated 800,000 illegally present farmworkers — over half in California — who work 12 hours a day to feed us. This bill rewards these essential workers, who risk infection and death to earn their money honestly by doing work Americans refuse to do.

It is time to recognize their worth, to legalize them and those who will replace them, with a reward for working hard for us. The bill will pass the House, the only remaining question is will it receive 60 votes in the Senate?

All senators from California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon and Washington will vote for it because they are Democrats. But 10 Republican senators from other states must vote for it as well.

How will senators from Idaho, Wyoming (the state of which advertised in Mexico for cowboys because there weren’t enough Americans wanting the work), Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Kentucky and Texas vote?

Farmers, Farm Bureaus and American citizens who enjoy fresh food few in the world have access to need to convince Republican senators to vote for this bill.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a Marine Corps veteran, political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.

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