AgJOBS Bill Would Allow Undocumented Farmworkers to Become Legal, Granting Them Labor Rights

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Two workers pick up tobacco leaves last summer in eastern North Carolina. (Photo: Diego Graglia)

Two workers pick up tobacco leaves last summer in eastern North Carolina. (Photo: Diego Graglia)

A bill now in Congress would allow over a million undocumented farmworkers –or 75 percent of the nation’s agricultural workforce– earn legal status in the U.S.

Similar measures have been proposed several times over the last decade, but its proponents are hoping this time the AgJOBS, or Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act will become law under what some see as a more favorable climate for immigrants under the Obama Administration.

The introduction of the bill, which has bipartisan support, was hailed by farmworkers advocates:

The AgJOBS compromise was carefully negotiated by the United Farm Workers and major agribusiness employers after years of intense conflict. AgJOBS is endorsed by major labor and management representatives, as well as a broad spectrum of organizations, including Latino community leaders, civil rights organizations, religious groups and farmworkers themselves.

[Harvesting Justice blog]

Just as predictably, the initiative sparked immediate rejection among those who want to limit immigration:

AgJOBS would grant amnesty to at least 2 million illegal alien agricultural workers and “reform” the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program to allow employers easier access to cheap foreign labor.

[FAIR Legislative Update]

An editorial in The New York Times came out in support of the bill, which “is the result of years of negotiations between growers and workers’ advocates,” the Times said.

Because it’s hard to find Americans willing to endure the heat, cold and misery of stooping in the fields — or the low wages — growers overwhelmingly use undocumented workers. … This is bad for everybody. Undocumented workers are easy prey for exploitation and unable to assert their rights. Growers constantly complain about labor shortages and are vulnerable to disruptive immigration raids.

About half a million farmers need to fill “more than 3 million agricultural jobs” every year, “much of it seasonal labor,” Mary Sanchez wrote in The Kansas City Star. “And many find few options other than hiring illegal immigrants.”

A couple of recent news reports highlighted the importance of reforming the current system for hiring farmworkers.

– A story by The Associated Press showed an “open secret” behind the dairy industry in New England. “Unable to attract local workers for the grueling job of milking cows and working the farm, Vermont, the nation’s 14th-largest dairy state, props up its dairy industry with perhaps thousands of immigrant laborers, many of whom are in the U.S. illegally,” Wilson Ring wrote.

“Everyone knows some of these people are illegal,” says Vermont Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee. But, he says, “The system is broken. There’s the need for labor.”

– An investigative piece by The Denver Post narrated the story of Mexican migrant farmworkers who lived in squalor to work “jobs that left them bone-weary” in the fields of northern Colorado and “lived in fear — not of the authorities, who could kick them out of the United States, but of the man who arranged to smuggle them into America, who gave them a place to live and found them jobs and who signed their paychecks, but who they said carried a gun to keep them in line.”

A federal judge recently awarded the men $7.8 million after they filed a federal lawsuit against the agricultural contractors, “who brought them to America and forced them to live as virtual prisoners as they worked off their debts.”

The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) said “(e)fforts have been made for years to get Americans to do the work, but they simply won’t do it,” according to the Contra Costa Times.

But Roy Beck, director of NumbersUSA, told the newspaper the senator mainly represents western farm interests.

“We’ve allowed western agricultural work to become a foreign job,” Beck said. “California farmers have gotten lazy, and they’re just addicted to this kind of illegal labor.”

[New day, new push to legalize farmworkers – Contra Costa Times]

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.