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Immigrant Farmworkers Are Deemed “Essential” to Keep Food on Our Tables — Yet are Mostly Excluded from National Response to Help All Workers

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As observers highlight the essential contributions of frontline immigrant workers such as farmworkers, the sad irony is that many of these same immigrant workers are risking their own health to keep our food supply functioning while being mostly excluded from policymakers’ efforts to ensure healthcare access and stimulate and stabilize the economy.  This has led at least one lawmaker, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, to question how the US can deem workers essential while at the same time deeming them “illegal.”

Below are key pieces underscoring the role – and perils – facing farmworkers at this moment:

A BuzzFeed story by Adolfo Flores and Hamed Aleaziz, “Farmworkers Are Caught Between Coronavirus Fears And Feeding The Nation: “We Are Very Worried

Faced with the possibility of having to spend weeks in quarantine, people across the US have rushed to grocery stores to panic-buy food and supplies to tide them over while hunkered down. Yet the agriculture and food processing plants, like meatpacking facilities, have been deemed essential by the federal government amid the pandemic, creating working conditions that most people in the US have been told to avoid.

…Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers union, has been calling on agriculture employers to extend sick leave and provide easy access to health services, since many workers are undocumented and live in rural areas … If farmworkers are deemed essential because they help get food to the public, Romero said, then it’s important to extend protections for them because it not only affects them and their families, but the food supply.

‘Farmworkers have been deemed essential workers, and they’re right — they’re the people that produce all of the food in the country … Many farmworkers are single mothers. They have to continue working to provide for their families, so they’re being forced to leave children at home … because they don’t have family support.’

At Common Dreams, Danica Jordan writes “‘Essential’ Immigrant Farmworkers Struggle to Feed Themselves During Coronavirus,” noting, “Immigrant farmworkers have long been essential to the United States. But they have never been recognized, respected or properly rewarded for their labor.” The piece notes that some local food banks are reporting that local farmworkers are in particular need of food assistance and security at the same moment they are keeping America’s food supply going.

And writing for New York Magazine, Eric Levitz states “Coronavirus Is Forcing the GOP to (Tacitly) Admit Its Ideology Is Delusional,” noting:

Undocumented immigrants are among the most indispensable contributors to the American economy … In truth, the undocumented aren’t an illicit foreign presence in the U.S. so much as our country’s hyperexploited lower caste; they are as essential to the functioning of our economy as they are to the demagoguery of plutocratic politicians in need of powerless scapegoats.

According to Pili Tobar, Deputy Director of America’s Voice, “We’re all in this effort against Covid-19 together. We owe frontline workers such as farmworkers who are ensuring we have food on our table during this health crisis, both our gratitude and our support by including them in relief measures designed to stem the spread of the virus and stimulate and stabilize the economy. We should acknowledge them and grant them permission to fully participate in the American society for which they do so much.”