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'I had an unknown weight on my shoulders': Undocumented farmworkers one step closer to more legal protections

Posted at 6:56 PM, Apr 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 10:05:00-04

MAGIC VALLEY — The feeling of living in fear of being suddenly separated from family is all too familiar for one University of Idaho student.

Beatrice Santiago grew up working every summer in the fields with her mother, who up until recently, was undocumented.

“It wasn’t until she became a resident that I realized I had an unknown weight on my shoulders every single day. Just because you never know if she was going to the store, she also doesn’t speak English fluently, knowing that someone could take advantage of her that would always worry me,” Santiago said.

This is a daily fear a majority of farmworkers throughout the country experience.

Although they make up a significant portion of agriculture workers and a vital part of the food system, undocumented workers are not given any protection from being deported.

Bill to provide farmworkers with legal protection

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson is looking to change that with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill that would provide undocumented workers with the opportunity to earn legal status through continued agriculture employment.

“Even if people that are anti-immigrant or extremist say we should just deport them all they don’t realize what would happen to our food chain if that were to happen," Simpson said.

“It would be justice honestly because farm workers do so much for us, a lot of people don’t really appreciate what they do for us and it would give them the justice they deserve,” said Jessica Betancourt, University of Idaho student.

The bill was originally introduced and passed in the House of Representatives in 2019. But a bipartisan group of representatives, including Rep. Simpson, reintroduced the bill with changes to the current H-2A visa program.

One of the major changes is it will include year-round farmworkers, like dairy workers, for the first time.

“Because our jobs are year-round and not seasonal, we aren’t allowed to use that program. This would give us access to that visa program for the first time ever. It’s a huge win for the dairy industry and other year-round industries where we don’t have a temporary workforce, but we have a year-round workforce," said Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

The Department of Labor estimates 46% of farmworkers are in the country without status and for the dairy industry that number may be higher since they weren't able to participate in the H-2A program.

Naerebout said since 90% of their workers are foreign-born, they estimate the percentage of undocumented workers is about the same.

"If we know that 90% of our farm workers are foreign-born and we don't have access to a visa program, you can do some rough estimates to conclude that a significant percentage of our workforce is here without status," said Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen's Association.

Rep. Simpson said the problem is that Americans are not applying for these jobs, which is why the agriculture industry relies so heavily on these undocumented workers.

“I was talking to a group of producers the other day and they said they had 4,000 openings in their industry and they put them out for advertisement to try and get Americans to take the job, four of them were filled by Americans and three of them quit by the first week," Simpson said.

Simpson said most of these producers have told him without these undocumented workers they would have no one to pick their crops, which would have a significant impact on our food supply.

“You will see a significant increase in the cost of food supply and other things as producers will go out of business frankly because they don’t have the workforce to support their industry," Simpson said.

University program helping students from farmworker families

The College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at the University of Idaho, a program that helps students who come from migrant farm working backgrounds, says most of the farmworkers in Idaho also deal with not being able to travel back home in case to see their families.

One farmworker was not even able to be with his wife after she suffered a miscarriage.

“He mentioned that story to me and it was really sad. He told me his wife was pregnant and I was like, 'oh congratulations' and he was like, 'but they just called me last night saying there were complications.' He was like, 'I can’t be there it’s just really hard because I can’t just drop my work and go,'" said Jeanette Orozco, retention specialist for the CAMP at UI.

Simpson said if this bill becomes law it will change that for farmworkers and give them the ability to visit their families without fear of not being able to return to their jobs.

“If you’re from Mexico and your grandmother gets ill and you want to go visit her, you have to be able to do that without having to worry if you could come back and start your job again and so it creates a legal workforce that is necessary," Simpson said.

The bill will give protection to those who have worked in the agriculture industry for at least 180 days in the past two years. The bill will also give protection to the farm worker's spouse and children.

The bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives but needs Senate approval before heading to the president's desk.

“It’s obvious that we have a broken immigration system right now, policies change, and so forth. If you look at immigration in general, what you see, what’s happening at the border right now is obviously broken and we need to fix that," Simpson said.