What Obama's Executive Action on Immigration Means for Farmworkers

With half of the ag workforce undocumented, the president's action will have a giant impact on the industry.

(Photo: Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

Nov 20, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

From every hyphenated American's surname mangled on Ellis Island to every family cleaved by the Mexican-American border, immigration policy is a political issue composed of countless deeply personal stories. Those stories have been at the forefront of the debate ahead of President Barack Obama's executive action, which is expected to expand deportation relief to 5 million undocumented immigrants.

Details were revealed to the public in a White House press release leaked on Thursday by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance—it issued this non-apology for putting it out before the president's speech: “Ideally we would have respected an embargo, but after 2 million deportations the President has lost a tad bit of respect from our organization. We don't care to play on their terms....”

As expected, the executive action will expand deportation relief to parents of U.S. citizens or “lawful permanent residents” and undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before turning 16 or prior to 2010 regardless of age.

Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, 8.4 million are employed, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project.

The president has couched immigration reform as a family issue. But it’s not only undocumented Americans and immigration lawyers who are trying to figure out what the presidential action will mean for their lives—in aggregate, all of those intimate family stories altered by the reform will likely have the biggest economic impact on the American agriculture sector.

When the USDA studied federal labor numbers in 2012, it found that over the previous 15 years about half of the people who tend to America's crops were undocumented immigrants, "with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico.”

While Silicon Valley has made a case that immigration law has made it difficult to recruit top talent from other countries, low-wage ag jobs are where the sheer numbers lie. According to the United Farm Workers, Obama’s announcement will make a significant difference for the huge number of undocumented farmworkers.

“We were pleased to learn from the President today that at least 250,000 farm workers (and at least 125,000 California farm workers) will be eligible for deportation relief under his executive action,” Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW, said in a statement yesterday. While Rodriguez says that the numbers came from Obama, they have not been reported elsewhere or confirmed by the White House.

In its coverage of the announcement, The New York Times made it clear that the executive action would not be able to protect a specific labor group from deportation. “Farm workers, for example, will not be singled out for protections,” Michael Shear and Robert Pear wrote today, “because of concerns that it was difficult to justify legally treating them differently from undocumented workers in other jobs, like hotel clerks, day laborers and construction workers.”

Republican lawmakers, as they have made abundantly clear, believe that any unilateral action from the president on immigration is illegal.

Thanks to a historic anomaly of American labor law, farmworkers are not entitled to earn the minimum wage, and the low pay and harsh conditions have made fieldwork unattractive to many Americans. But after decades of inaction on immigration issues, even those most opposed to undocumented people living and working in the United States depend on those field hands to put food on their plates.

Lacking legal status makes what is already a thankless, underpaid job even more troubling for immigrants. Ag laborers are regularly subjected to wage theft, chemical exposure, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, and other horrendous workplace conditions. But when management can threaten an employee with deportation, any complaints are easily tamped down.

So not only will the president’s executive action help to change some of those family narratives; it could make the working lives of those 250,000-some farmworkers just that much more tolerable.