Padilla: It’s Fundamentally Wrong for U.S. to Deem Farmworkers as Essential and Deny Them Legal Protections

Padilla Co-Leads Judiciary Hearing on Essential Role of Immigrant Farmworkers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety, co-chaired a Judiciary hearing entitled “Immigrant Farmworkers are Essential to Feeding America.” The hearing focused on the urgent need to legalize undocumented farmworkers whose arduous and dangerous work keeps Americans fed. It is estimated that half of the agricultural workforce is made up of undocumented farmworkers. 

Witnesses included Thomas Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture; Arturo Rodriguez, President Emeritus, United Farm Workers of America; Linnea Kooistra, Farmer, Kooistra Farms LLC; Shay Myers, CEO and Farmer, Owyhee Produce; Leon Sequeira, Former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy; and Jen Sorenson, President, National Pork Producers Council.

Padilla began the hearing by discussing the essential role of farmworkers in California, noting that 60% to 75% of California’s farmworkers are undocumented. Padilla discussed the hard work and dedication of farmworkers to keep American families fed – both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Padilla stressed that it is fundamentally wrong for the United States government to deem farmworkers as essential, yet deny them legal protections and status. 

Padilla started off his questioning by asking Secretary Vilsack how providing a pathway to legalization for farmworkers would bolster the U.S. economy. The Secretary explained that because the agricultural and food industry is roughly 20% of the American economy, legalization for farmworkers would provide for a “more robust, stronger, and more stable American economy.”

Padilla also questioned UFW President Emeritus Arturo Rodriguez on the impact COVID-19 had on farmworkers, asking how the immigration status of farmworkers impacted them during the pandemic. Rodriguez responded by saying that despite all of the risks, farmworkers continued to work and show up every day, and they’ll continue to do so for the American people. As his first bill in the Senate, Padilla introduced the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers, including farmworkers. 

Additionally, Padilla asked Mr. Rodriguez about heat stress protections for farmworkers, asking what recourse immigrant farmworkers have if they suffer from heat related injuries. Rodriguez responded by saying that California is one of the few states that has heat stress protections in place for farmworkers, but the majority of farmworkers in this country are exposed to dangerous heat conditions that have caused illnesses and even deaths. Padilla has joined Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in introducing the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which would protect indoor and outdoor workers against occupational exposure to excessive heat.

WATCH: View Video of Padilla’s Opening Remarks Download Video of Padilla’s Opening Remarks

WATCH: View Video of Padilla’s Questioning Panel 1 Download Video of Padilla’s Questioning Panel 1

WATCH: View Video of Padilla’s Questioning Panel 2 Download Video of Padilla’s Questioning Panel 2

Key Opening Remarks Excerpts:

  • I often say that no state has more at stake in immigration reform than my home state of California. And it’s especially true when it comes to the essential role of farmworkers. California is the agricultural heart of the nation. We know that more than one-third of our country’s vegetables and two-thirds of fruits and nuts come from California.
  • In fact, in California, not just in California but especially in California, farmers struggle every year to hire as many farmworkers as they need to pick major crops. That’s been the case since prior to the pandemic. That’s why our agricultural industry has relied for decades on the labor of immigrants.
  • Today, an estimated 60 upward to 75% percent of California’s farmworkers are undocumented. Now these dedicated individuals work backbreaking jobs for hours on end to give their families a better chance at life—and to feed all of our families across the nation.  
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t just the United States government, let’s be clear about this – Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security deemed farmworkers essential workers. Think about what that means. Formal recognition by the federal government that farmworkers, regardless of immigration status, are critical to our nation, critical to the food supply, critical to our economy. We can’t live without them.
  • Farmworkers continued to show up for work despite the triple threats of the pandemic, extreme heat waves, and record-breaking fire seasons. Now, because of their outsized presence on the front lines of the pandemic and the climate crisis, farmworker communities have suffered a disproportionate number of illnesses and deaths. But they still continue to show up for work. At the same time, many of these workers face increased risks because of their undocumented status. 
  • More than half a million farmworkers, more than half a million essential farmworkers, per the U.S. government, contracted the coronavirus, and thousands of them lost their lives. Farmworkers—and all of those who served in front line jobs during the pandemic—deserve better: they deserve respect, they deserve our gratitude, they deserve security, and they deserve a pathway to citizenship.
  • That’s why I was inspired to introduce the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act as my first bill in the Senate. It is fundamentally wrong for the United States government to recognize workers and deem them essential, yet deny them legal protections and status at the same time.
  • As the proud son of immigrants from Mexico, I know that immigrants have always been essential, since long before the pandemic. So, passing immigration reform that respects the dignity and worth of all immigrants is also a recognition of their contribution to our economy and our national security.

Key Questioning Excerpts:

  • PADILLA: Mr. Secretary, in 2019, California produced $50 billion in agricultural commodities. California alone. As I mentioned earlier, the state is also a major exporter of agricultural products and makes up 16% of total U.S. agriculture exports, totaling 21.7 billion dollars. In addition, more than one-third of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California, including 80% of the global supply of almonds and nearly 90% of U.S.-grown strawberries. Yet, California, and other states across the country are facing a chronic labor that you have spoken to already. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that, in total, U.S. agriculture needs 1.5 to 2 million hired workers each year. But, farmers are struggling to fill these positions. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 56% of California farmers reported being unable to find all of the workers they needed for their main crop over the last five years. Again, that was prior to COVID. Mr. Secretary, about 400,000 workers represent California’s agricultural workforce. More than 60 upward to 75% of these workers are undocumented. Given the overrepresentation of undocumented immigrants in this industry, how could providing a pathway to legalization for farmworkers bolster the U.S. economy and trade relations?

VILSACK: It would provide stability to Western growers. […] I think they recognize with that stability they can plan, they can make determinations about expansion opportunities, they can figure out ways in which they can be more productive, which creates more opportunities not only for domestic consumption, but also exports. And in turn, supports all of the jobs that are essentially in the supply chain that results from the fruit that’s being picked and grown in your state. And your state is the number one agricultural state in terms of productivity, in terms of sales, so obviously anything you all do that can benefit and expand opportunities in California will have a positive impact on agriculture generally. And as I indicated, agriculture and the food industry is roughly 20% of the American economy, so at the end of the day, it would provide for a more robust, stronger, and more stable American economy.

  • PADILLA: Farmworkers were deemed essential during the pandemic, as we’ve discussed repeatedly here today. As a result, farmworkers continue to work on the frontlines of our food supply chains and often had few resources to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus. Nearly 600,000 farmworkers have contracted COVID-19 and the food and agriculture workers in California I know have experienced the highest “excess mortality” during the pandemic, with a 39% increase compared to previous years. For Latinos specifically, the mortality increase reached 59%. According to findings from a National Agricultural Workers Survey, about one-third of U.S. farmworkers live below the federal poverty level and fewer than half have health insurance or sufficient paid sick leave. That’s not a good combination we’re describing here. Many do not qualify for unemployment insurance or other social safety nets because of their undocumented status. These are essential workers. As I mentioned in my earlier statement, I introduced the “Citizenship for Essential Workers Act” as my first bill to provide a pathway to permanency for farmworkers and all essential workers. Mr. Rodriguez, can you discuss how the immigration status of farmworkers has impacted them during the pandemic?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, it makes it extremely difficult. I mean here you have a worker that doesn’t have legal status in our country and they feel, first of all, obligated because of the work that they do. That’s what their skilled at, that’s what they’ve been doing, that’s what their knowledgeable about doing. And as has been mentioned here today, that’s the way they contribute to our nation in regards to making sure we have a secure food supply. So, because the pandemic came, was not a reason for them to leave and just continue working in agriculture. They continued working, they showed up every day, they made sure our crops production continued here within this nation, dairy farms, working there and so forth. And they’ll continue to do so, despite the fact that they did all this at great risk.

PADILLA: Let me just say, their continued commitment and work, contributions to the supply chain, the economy, despite the risks, despite the dangers is nothing less than heroic.

  • PADILLA: As temperatures continue to rise across the country, more and more farmworkers are at risk of experiencing heat illness which can cause heat-cramps, organ damage, heat exhaustion, stroke or even death. In fact, between 1992 and 2017, heat stress injuries killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000. A recent report published by UCLA found that the financial costs of heat related injuries in California alone are between $750 million and $1.25 billion each year. The study also found that on days with high temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, very common in the Central Valley and other parts of the state, workers have a 6% to 9% higher risk of injuries. That’s particularly alarming given the ongoing, increasing climate change. The “Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act,” which I am a proud cosponsor of, directs OSHA to implement a heat safety standard nationwide. California adopted its own heat-stress standards and as a result, workplace injures declined significantly. I was a proud supporter of those state work place standards in my prior service in state government. Unfortunately, it’s not the case for vulnerable workers across the country—and I believe we need a national standard in place. Mr. Rodriguez, can you discuss what recourse immigrant farmworkers have if they suffer from heat related injuries?

RODRIGUEZ: Well certainly in the state of California we have laws and legislation. […] The unfortunate thing is, is that, that is one of the few states that actually have those protections for farmworkers. So that the majority of farmworkers still in this country are exposed to heat conditions that have caused, as you said, illnesses that have transpired time and time again, and even deaths. 

For additional information on the hearing, click here.

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