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Undocumented farmworkers push Congress for protections amid historic heat

Green ripening soybean field, agricultural landscape
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(NEW YORK) — Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old undocumented farmworker from Guatemala, was working at a tree farm in Oregon on June 26 when he died during the record-breaking heat wave that swept across the region.

“He had dreams of starting a family with his wife, Maria, who is in Guatemala right now. … He was only here for two months without papers, trying to save up money to start fertility treatments,” said Reyna Lopez, the executive director of PCUN, a farmworker union based in Oregon.

As temperatures reached 115 degrees in the Pacific Northwest in late June, a spotlight has again shined on the brutal and, at times, life-threatening conditions some farmworkers in America face.

Perez’s death has added urgency to a push for undocumented farmworkers to gain legal immigration status, which advocates say is needed for them to fight for basic worker protections.

Agricultural workers were 35 times more likely to die of heat-related illnesses compared to workers of other industries from 2000 to 2010, according to research published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Oftentimes, farmworkers who do not have proper documentation suppress concerns about hazardous working conditions, including extreme heat, due to fears of deportation or job loss, said Roxana Chicas, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Nursing, who spoke with reporters on a call last week to highlight the concerning conditions faced by farmworkers.

Leticia, an undocumented farmworker in Washington and a mother of four whose last name was not disclosed for security reasons, told reporters on the call Thursday that even in 115 degrees, she was not not given shade or access to water.

“I fear not making it home to my husband and children,” she said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown directed Oregon Occupational Safety and Health to create emergency rules requiring employers to provide shade, breaks and cool water for workers during high temperatures. And in Washington, a new law passed in May allowed state farmworkers to receive overtime pay and make complaints against their employers without retaliation.

However, there are no federal emergency heat standards protecting farmworkers from extreme weather conditions.

“We need our federal government to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Lopez said of protecting workers while also giving them a path to legal status. “We need strong standards to protect the workers that feed America.”

According to a report published by political organization FWD.us, about 73% of agricultural workers are immigrants and about half of them are undocumented.

Farmworker advocates in the last few weeks have doubled down on their push for Congress to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, which would give farmworkers a path to earn legal status if they continue to work in agriculture. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act states that most immigrant farmworkers hold an H-2A visa, which is temporary and dependent on an employer’s sponsorship.

The bill has passed the House with bipartisan support and is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee pending a hearing.

If passed and signed by the president, the law would provide stability and bargaining power to immigrant farmworkers who are vulnerable to abuse, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who authored the bill.

“It’s not everything that everyone wanted, but it’s something we could all support,” she added, referring to nearly universal support from Democrats as well as from some Republicans, including Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Even with some support from the other side of the aisle, Democrats are considering trying to include some immigration provisions in an expected budget reconciliation bill later this year. That route could allow them to try to pass such policies without needing any GOP votes.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would grant those who performed agricultural labor for at least 180 days within two years certified agricultural worker status. One way a farmworker can then apply for a green card is to prove they have worked a total of 10 years in agriculture, including four years in certified agricultural worker status.

“When you’re undocumented, it really limits your ability to speak up and I want everyone to know the truth to what happens and that’s we’re too afraid to speak up in the workplace,” said Leticia. “Giving farmworkers a path to citizenship will give them the ability to speak up about injustices they face.”

The act would require farms to maintain a heat-illness prevention plan that includes worker training, access to water, shade, regular breaks and protocols for emergency response.

President Joe Biden has supported the legislation and mentioned it on Friday during a naturalization ceremony for new citizens, saying he thought there needed to be “a pathway [toward citizenship] for farmworkers who are here putting food on our tables but are not citizens.”

ABC News’ MaryAlice Parks contributed to this report.

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