This Thanksgiving, let’s honor and give thanks to the unseen guests at our dinner tables – the immigrants who helped make our meals possible. From side dishes like green beans and roasted potatoes, to main dishes like turkey and glazed ham, to the sweet fillings from our desserts, immigrants regardless of legal status labored in fields and factories across the country to feed us, our families and loved ones.
Labor organization United Farm Workers (UFW) showed some of the hard work that goes into Thanksgiving meals in one viral Twitter thread back in 2022. Some of the featured items – like sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts – are all Thanksgiving dinner staples. While some items, like the sweet potatoes, can be harvested by machines, they still must be washed by workers. “The skin on a fresh sweet potato is too fragile for machinery,” NPR reported in a 2015 profile on one sweet potato worker in South Carolina.
“Men — and a few women — move through the field, backs bent, picking up sweet potatoes and dropping them into plastic buckets. When the buckets are full, the workers lift them to their shoulders, carry them to a flatbed truck, and dump them into bins. It’s exhausting work — some of the most physically demanding farm work there is.”
Farmworker Nabor Segundo told NPR each bucket weighs as much as 30 pounds. Now imagine making the trip from the field to the truck and back again as many as 500 times.
“When you first get here, your waist, your hands and your feet can’t take it,” he told NPR. “It’s really hard the first time, because you don’t know how to carry the bucket, how to lift it to your shoulders. It’s really hard to learn.” Farm work is also skilled work. “Asparagus requires delicate handling and a grueling posture. Harvesters have a high rate of repetitive strain injuries,” UFW said. Other items, like beets, require workers to be on their knees for hours at a time.
The majority of these workers keep us fed even as they lack permanent protections allowing them to live and work legally in the country they help nourish. “At least half of the nation’s roughly 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented immigrants,” Farmworker Justice said in 2019, leaving them vulnerable to workplace abuses, exploitation, and deportation. In agriculture-rich California, as many as 75% of farmworkers may lack legal immigration status. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants have been vulnerable to discriminatory immigration raids that have targeted meatpacking plants.
These workers also face serious – and sometimes deadly – risks throughout their work bringing produce and meats to our tables.
“Farmworkers, who are a majority migrant and Spanish-speaking workforce, die of heat-related causes at a rate of 20 times more than other professions,” Civil Eats reported amid a scorching heatwave that hit the west last year. In Florida, farmworker Efrain López García died while laboring in extreme heat this past July. “López García survived eight sweltering summers as a farmworker in Homestead,” Miami Herald reported. “But on July 6 — the hottest day recorded on earth since at least 1979 — López García died on the job.” Shockingly, there is no federal heat standard for outdoor workers. While the Biden administration in 2021 announced “a coordinated, interagency effort to respond to extreme heat” threatening workers and communities, no finalized rule is yet in place.
Immigrants are also the backbone of the meatpacking industry, making up nearly 40% of these workers. But as many other workers were able to shelter in place at the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, meatpacking workers had no choice but to continue to remain on the frontlines.
“People were scared, but [management] made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal,” Alma, a worker at Noah’s Ark Processors in Nebraska, told the American Civil Liberties Union in 2020. “The first thing they said was that nobody could miss work. They would say that [COVID-19] was just nonsense. Even when things got more serious, they didn’t care.”
These workers deserve full workplace protections and a pathway to legalization. During a Senate hearing in 2021, Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) called it “fundamentally wrong for the United States government to deem farmworkers as essential, yet deny them legal protections and status.” Padilla was later one of just two U.S. Senators (the other being New Jersey’s Cory Booker) to accept an invitation from farmworkers to work alongside them for a day. “Migrant farm workers put food on our tables & kept grocery stores stocked throughout a global pandemic,” Senator Padilla later tweeted. “Their work is essential.”
Thanksgiving is a time to thank and honor these workers – and also an opportunity to welcome our new neighbors seeking new lives and opportunities here. In Missouri, the International Institute of St. Louis was among the local groups to organize a Thanksgiving dinner for new refugees, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week. Daniel Anthony, a St. Louis resident originally from India, added his green bean casserole to a menu of macaroni and cheese, brussel sprouts, pumpkin pie, and turkey.
“For the new refugees, I hope they feel welcome and they know that the community cares about them,” Anthony told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I hope they experience connection and warmth and an evening full of joy and laughter.” In Virginia, more than 500 people broke bread at an annual Refugees Thanksgiving dinner organized by the African Community Center, NBC4 Washington reported. “Families in attendance were from more than 14 different countries, including Ukraine and Afghanistan.”
“It’s a very good tradition to gather the people to sit and talk about their lives,” Ali Ahmad Noori, an Afghan refugee, told the outlet. “Thanksgiving is good to give thanks to each other … and to bless everything, every one of them.”
This should also be a time of reflection for the opponents of humane immigration policy (but judging from their track record, it won’t be). They should realize, this Thanksgiving especially, that without the very hard labor of migrant workers, they and their families might not be having a feast at all.