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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

US Farmworker “Reforms” Tighten the Chains

from the June 23, 2021 Bulletin

labor immigration and border issues agriculture practices & policy

The work of the acclaimed photojournalist David Bacon has long offered a window into the daily lives of immigrant workers. His latest report — on the H2-A temporary visa program — documents why the program needs to be abolished, not “fixed.”

Last month, Mexican workers filed suit under the new USMCA trade pact's labor provisions. They alleged discrimination against women in the temporary work visa program for agricultural workers, the H2-A. This lawsuit isn't exciting you. Why not?


We’ve always had a basic division among those who want to improve the situation of migrant farmworkers. I’m in the camp of those who want radical change. Others want to work within what they imagine is politically possible. The H2-A program resembles the Bracero program, an effort notorious for its maltreatment of farmworkers. The Bracero program ended in 1965 after organizing by activists in the Chicano and immigrant civil rights movement, activists like Bert Corona, Ernesto Galarza, and Cesar Chavez.

The 1986 creation of the H2-A visa revived the “guestworker” program — a cruel joke of a name. The Immigration Reform and Control Act also included sanctions against employers using illegal workers. Radicals opposed the entire H2-A program and especially its “employer sanctions.” They saw these sanctions as actually a tool to punish workers: Employers could fire workers who organized or went on strike, suddenly “discovering” their own workers’ undocumented status.

The workers employers have brought to the US with the H-2A program, meanwhile, have been at their complete mercy. The visa allows these workers to labor only for the employer that recruits them. If they complain, they're fired, lose their visa, and are deported back to Mexico where they're blacklisted so they can't return in future seasons. The net result: Both undocumented and H2-A workers are deprived of their basic rights.

But isn’t having legal status a good thing?

The H2-A visa doesn’t bring real legal status, like a permanent residence visa or “green card.” It’s short-term, and the worker is subject to the conditions the boss imposes. The USMCA discrimination complaint highlights that employers can legally recruit only young men, whom they put under enormous pressure to work hard and fast. Discrimination is unfair, but the real answer is not to have women working under this abusive system, but to end the abuse for both women and men — that is, to end the H2-A program.



Does the H2-A visa program affect those not holding the visas?

Yes. The number of H2-A workers in the US reached over a quarter million last year. Growers are replacing workers living here, who are also mostly immigrants. The bill now before Congress, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, will let growers recruit more H2-A workers, while at the same time making it impossible for undocumented workers to continue in their jobs.

How has the H2-A program affected US small and family farms?

Farms getting H2-A workers have to provide housing, but even lousy housing costs money to put up, and small farms can’t afford that. The largest growers have the capital. Their access to H2-A is leading to an even greater concentration of agriculture in the biggest corporate farms.

Private recruiting for agricultural workers in México has become a lucrative industry. Would it be better to have the governments handle the recruitment?

The Bracero program was administered by the Mexican and US governments, and it was corrupt, with bribe-taking and other abuses. Private labor contractors have been worse, even blacklisting activists. When the Farm Labor Organizing Committee opened an office in Mexico to monitor corruption, the staff person sent to do that work was tortured and killed for threatening those enormous profits. But the answer isn’t to involve the governments. Any system based on labor recruitment for growers will be inherently abusive.

What does México want?

México historically has justified its support for a US-Mexico agreement like the old Bracero program by claiming that getting into the US with an H2-A visa will always be safer than crossing the desert. Many families also depend on remittances from family members working in the US. Neoliberal Mexican politicians have promoted H2-A visas, calling them a route to US jobs.

But AMLO, in his inauguration speech, promised to make México a country Mexicans could be happy living in, rather than one they have to leave in order to survive. The demand in many communities — for the “right to stay home” — requires economic development that guarantees jobs at home, high farm prices from growing crops for domestic consumption, and healthcare and education. Such a program is incompatible with an economy based on remittances.

AMLO talks about “failed neoliberal policies” that have food produced for export rather than to feed Mexico’s own people. He’s also criticized treating the Mexican people like products for export. But his new government-regulated labor export program proposal contradicts his promises. Work visas should be abolished and people should be treated as people, not as a commodity called “workers.”

Won’t the Farm Workforce Modernization Act awaiting Senate approval provide farmworkers a path to citizenship?

This bill, unfortunately, forces undocumented farmworkers already in the US to work for at least 100 days per year for four or eight more years to become a “Certified Agricultural Worker” and eventually apply for a green card. Many will not meet this requirement because seasonal work may not add up to 100 days. Moreover, the bill will force growers to use the E-Verify database to weed out future workers without visas. The new law is clearly intended to allow growers to recruit more temporary workers, with no path to citizenship.

What solution do you see?

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act falls within the “what might be possible” frame. A radical program would encompass, as the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales demands, both “the right to migrate” and “the right to stay home.” This would include demilitarizing the border, closing detention centers, and ending immigration raids, as well as stopping trade agreements that force the massive displacement of communities.

So the choice confronting us is whether to support a deal that provides legalization for some while maintaining the exploitative H2-A program or instead to reinforce an immigration system based on family reunification and community stability while protecting farmworker wages, rights, health, and housing — the alternative advanced by the civil rights movement over half a century ago.