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Essential Immigrant Workers Shouldn’t Have To Die To Have Their Work Recognized and Respected

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Eight Florida farmworkers were killed following a catastrophic collision near Dunnellon this week. The Tampa Bay Times reports that the deceased were among 53 farmworkers who were off to start the day’s work at a family-owned peanut and watermelon farm when their bus was struck by a truck that had suddenly crossed into the center line, causing it to crash into a fence and tree before rolling over. 

More than 40 other workers were injured, several of them seriously. Six of the deceased have been identified, the Associated Press reported. Their names were Evarado Ventura Hernández, 30; Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24; Alfredo Tovar Sánchez, 20; Isaías Miranda Pascal, 21; José Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27; and Manuel Pérez Ríos, 46.

Bryan Maclean Howard, the driver of the truck that crashed into the bus, “was ordered held without bail a little more than 24 hours after the crash that led to him facing eight counts of driving under the influence-manslaughter,” NBC News reported. The judge overseeing the case ordered Howard to remain detained due to a lengthy history of driving-related offenses, including one incident just a few days prior. 

In Florida and around the nation, advocates expressed their grief and condolences for the workers lost and injured in the horrific crash. 

“We are devastated by the news that 8 people have died in a bus crash in Florida carrying dozens of farmworkers,” tweeted immigrant youth-led organization United We Dream. “This tragedy hits close to home for our immigrant communities, as we know many farmworkers are migrants. They are also parents, community members & Floridians.” Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center tweeted in bilingual messages on social media that “our heart goes out to all the migrant farmworkers who tragically lost their lives in this accident. May they rest in peace.” 

The Farmworker Association of Florida shared a crowdfunding link benefiting affected workers and families, writing that “any form of support helps, even liking, sharing, or commenting can make a difference. We want to offer as much help as possible to the people impacted by this.”

The crash harkens to the March catastrophe that took the lives of another group of Latino workers when a freighter lost power and pummeled into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse. Six workers – all Latin American immigrants with hopes and dreams for themselves and their families – were lost. In death, Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, Alejandro Hernández Fuentes, Miguel Angel Luna Gonzalez, Carlos Daniel Hernández, Jose Mynor Lopez and Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval reminded all of us of the critical roles that millions of immigrants play in the construction industry, as roofers, carpenters, drywallers, welders, painters, and, as in the case of the six men, roadway repairers. 

But immigrants shouldn’t have to die to have their work recognized. Their essential work should be respected every day. 

This should also be true in Florida, where ​​an estimated “105,759 men and women work in nurseries and crop agriculture statewide over the course of the year,” Rural Neighborhoods said. In 2022, these workers helped make Florida number one in the U.S. in the value of production of bell peppers, sugarcane, tomatoes, and watermelons, just to name a few items. Florida is also one of the top producers of all oranges.

In fact, before the state’s famous citrus industry was affected by hurricanes and other environmental factors, no matter where in the U.S. you were eating an orange, the overwhelming likelihood was that it was harvested by a farmworker in Florida. Despite the challenges posed by weather, most recently Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, the state’s farmworkers still produce millions of boxes of citrus every season. This past April, the Department of Agriculture projected that farmworkers in Florida will produce nearly 19 million boxes of oranges and 2.2 million boxes of grapefruit by the end of this season.

“Growers are witnessing improved tree health and ‘snow white’ orange blossoms in the groves — a tell-tale sign that there’s hope for Florida’s citrus industry to make its great American comeback,” Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Matt Joyner said, according to WGCU. 

But let’s not forget that it’s the farmworkers on the ground, the men and women (and oftentimes children) who, through their sweat, grit, and skilled labor, carry out the backbreaking work that sustains the agricultural industry and feeds the nation, which are critical to that great American comeback. If anyone knows what it’s like to persevere through adversity, it’s an immigrant worker.

Florida lawmakers know the importance of these workers, yet in 2023, they still passed the anti-immigrant S.B. 1718, largely to boost Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ failed presidential run. While the anti-immigrant bill didn’t drive DeSantis past Iowa, it did drive frightened immigrant workers out of Florida. Moncho and his wife were among them. They left the state to seek dairy farm work in Vermont (yet another industry that depends on the labor of immigrant workers).

“Once the law passed, there were empty houses,” Moncho told Civil Eats in February. “You went down the street, and it was, ‘For Rent. For Rent. For Rent,’ everywhere.” Civil Eats reported that “as workers have fled, ‘help wanted’ signs have reportedly popped up across the state. Crops have been left to rot in fields. Entire communities emptied out and turned into ‘ghost towns.’” DeSantis then doubled down on his attack on essential workers by signing a bill prohibiting local entities from passing lifesaving laws protecting laborers who work outdoors from exposure to heat.

Lucia Lopez, a farmworker who harvests tomatoes near Tampa, said, “she’s sad that Florida won’t have local protections in place for workers like her,” NPR reported in April. “There are days that feel more harmful than others,” Lopez said. “Like, some days, you can get a headache, and you can feel dehydrated.”

“Lucas Benitez, the co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said Wednesday that it learned from the Mexican consulate that the farmworkers who were killed were from at least five different states in Mexico,” the AP reported on this week’s horrific crash. “Evarado Ventura Hernández’s mother, Rosalina Hernández Martínez, said Wednesday that her son had told her the work he did on Florida farms was ‘very hard,’ but that he was happy. ‘It hurts,’ she said. ‘A piece of my heart is gone.’”