With over 81,500 farms, California relies heavily on its estimated 800,000 undocumented farm laborers. When workplace immigration raids occur, halting the harvesting process creates a ripple effect from the farm’s rotting crops to the consumer’s dining table. Now, one senator from California is standing up for migrant workers by asking the government to grant them a deportation reprieve.
In a letter addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) requested the government to use prosecutorial discretion in deporting farm workers, but also to stop its I-9 farm audits, a process that requires employers to verify the work authorization status of their employees. She writes:
As you have recognized previously, the agricultural industry faces an acute shortage of domestic workers. Therefore, I respectfully request that you redirect ICE’s enforcement efforts to focus on immigration law violations that involve serious violent crimes, and that you exercise prosecutorial discretion to forego enforcement against legitimate agricultural employers and their workers. [...]
The utilization of I-9 enforcement audits against agricultural employers exacerbates this crisis. When employers being audited receive notification that certain employees have not provided proper work authorization documents, those workers must be terminated. Because the reality is that the majority of farm workers in the U.S. are foreign-born and unauthorized – which is well-known –, I am afraid that this aggressive work site enforcement strategy will deprive the agricultural sector of most of its workforce and cause farmers and related industries across the country significant economic harm, as well as driving up food prices for consumers.
Under the I-9 audit, employers must immediately fire migrant farm laborers whose identities do not match up with the government database. Yet deporting such a large and crucial undocumented population would dramatically hurt an agricultural economy that generates $20 billion annually, with little of the revenues going towards migrants.
Because farmers can intimidate these migrants with deportation, slave-like conditions are not uncommon. If fulfilled, Feinstein’s request could potentially allow those immigrants to feel more inclined to report incidences of abuses and wage theft.
Yet even if the government acts on Feinstein’s letter to temporarily halt deportations, it still does nothing to ensure worker protections. Migrant farm workers, legal and undocumented, are still subject to other agricultural issues like pesticide poisoning and inadequate healthcare including the threat of being fired when they take sick days. They are also subjected to low wages that put them below the poverty line.
But as it stands, California lawmakers understand the need to address its huge undocumented population. They have two bills that are pending in California’s Assembly Appropriations which would punish employers for taking advantage of undocumented immigrants, like prohibiting employers from collecting recruiting fees and prohibiting businesses from threatening workers with deportation. San Francisco is similarly taking up legislation that would make it illegal to detain undocumented immigrants. The bill would likely exempt convicted violent felons, sex offenders and those with prior weapons possession convictions.
Feinstein’s call for a deportation reprieve for an important segment of the American economy is not novel. Last year, she urged the then-ICE director John Morton to focus his department’s efforts on serious offenders like human and drug traffickers.