On Thursday, many Americans will sit down with their families around tables brimming with a splendid cornucopia of food. There could be too much turkey, beef, or some stuffed abomination that incorporates several different kinds of animals. There could also be side dishes like green bean casserole and mashed potatoes. And to top it off, there might be warm berry pie with a dollop of ice cream.
But families enjoying a meal together may not realize that there are immigrants at their dinner table.
Although immigrants may not be physical guests, they are present in the contribution that they made in getting those dishes to the table. The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) estimates that about 48 percent of agricultural workers are unauthorized immigrants. Other farmworkers could be on seasonable agricultural visas known as H-2A or H-2B visas. Meanwhile, about 38 percent of meat-processing and slaughterhouse workers are born outside the U.S.
Particularly with the anti-immigrant rhetoric stemming from the controversy over Syrian refugees and the candidates in the 2016 presidential election, it’s important to note that many of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes wouldn’t be made possible without the contributions from immigrants:
An estimated 46 million turkeys will be consumed this Thanksgiving by 90 percent of Americans. Others might eat chicken, which Americans buy more than any other meat at the center of the plate year-round. These birds are processed by poultry workers, who are often Latino and sometimes undocumented.
Pedro (not his real name) processes 45 to 60 chickens every minute, or roughly one each second. His hand was so swollen from handling the chickens that he had to wear 3XL sized plastic gloves. The nurse told him to take ibuprofen and soak his hands in Epsom salts and hot water. “The infirmary nurse told me it was nothing to worry about, just your body getting used to it, like when you lift weights and your muscles swell up,” he said on a recent media call. Pedro said that his supervisor ignored his doctor’s order and put him back to work anyway. “They do not care about the safety of the person, they just care about putting the chickens out,” he said.
Like Pedro, other poultry workers are subjected to some of the highest rates of workplace injuries because they have to make multiple motions to hang, cut, trim, bread, freeze, and package chickens — up to 20,000 times a day with force, an Oxfam America report found. These injuries could result in carpal tunnel syndrome, swelling, numbness, tingling, stiffness, and loss of grip.
Beyond injuries, immigrants can also be threatened with deportation. As one Arkansas poultry worker told Human Rights Watch, “They have us under threat [bajo amenaza] all the time. They know most of us are undocumented — probably two-thirds. All they care about is getting bodies into the plant. My supervisor said they say they’ll call the INS if we make trouble,” INS being the acronym for the now-defunct federal agency that was subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security.
In any given year, Americans consume about 52.8 pounds of beef, which makes it the number two meat of choice at the dinner table. As people become more creative with their Thanksgiving main dish ideas, some may turn to alternatives like roast beef and meatloaf.
According to Ismael Valadez, the president of the advocacy group Unity in Action, many immigrant employees are working in slaughterhouses without proper safety oversight. But undocumented immigrants may be too afraid to report safety violations — a fear that could extend to asking a documented immigrant to attend OSHA safety training courses on their behalf to avoid letting their bosses know that they have rights.
In one instance, a meatpacker was accidentally stabbed after standing too close to another employee. “The person right next to him reached out to cut a piece of meat, reached too far and stabbed the person on the upper thigh,” Valadez said, noting that the person was given a bandaid before being sent back on the line.
“A few months later, the same employee was stabbed again — this time in the upper shoulder — and this time the employee had to go to the emergency line to get stitches,” Valadez said. “He ended up getting fired for questioning the incidents.”
Jose Gaytan, a legal immigrant from Mexico, was drawn to working at slaughterhouses at the age of 19 on the promise of higher-than-minimum-wage pay and two weeks of paid housing in October 1997. But he quickly started to notice the toll that the work was taking on his body.
“My hand started to go through changes,” Gaytan told ThinkProgress. “I would pull the tenderloin, which is where the filet mignon comes from, but I remember having to ice my hands. …My hands would actually not hurt when I was working — it was after hours. …At night I could feel the stinging.”
“I had known labor work — I worked in construction, unloaded semis in Texas, but this work was totally different,” Gaytan added.
Green Bean Casserole
About 656,000 tons of snap (green) beans were produced in 2011, a key ingredient in the eponymous casserole dish considered a traditional Thanksgiving necessity.
Manuel Garcia, a farm worker in Salinas Valley, California told Harvest Public Media that his eyes frequently burned from the chemical spray used on the green beans. When Garcia complained to his supervisor about being able to smell chemicals while harvesting green beans, however, his supervisor told him not to worry because they were spraying “medicine.” Garcia was unable to pay the $30 copay at the local commuity clinic, but even if he had been able to, no one there was able to speak his native Triqui.
Like Garcia, many farm workers are exposed to pesticides and chemical sprays and often suffer health consequences as a result. An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States annually. There are anywhere between 1,800 and 3,000 occupational incidents involving pesticides every year, though the number is likely even higher due to widespread underreporting.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently updated a two-decade old Worker Protection Standard (WPS) to mitigate pesticide exposure among farmworkers. Among new revisions, the regulation included mandatory training sessions to inform farmworkers about the protections their employers are required to offer them; expanded training to teach workers how to reduce “take-home exposure;” provided anti-retaliatory provisions; and for the first time ever, it barred minors under 18 from handling pesticides. Once fully implemented, the revised regulation is expected to “avoid or mitigate approximately 44 to 73 percent of annual reported acute WPS-related pesticide incidents,” according to the EPA.
Fidel Silva, a potato farm worker, works 14 to 16 hours a day in Idaho harvesting potatoes. During the winter, he works in freezing temperatures to plant the potatoes, and during the summer, he helps to irrigate the fields in 100-degree heat, according to the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice.
Silva is among 22,000 Latinos working to harvest potatoes, sugar beets, and grain in Idaho, making up 32.4 percent of Idaho’s employed farmworkers. Idaho produces over 320,000 acres of potatoes every spring, a crop that’s valued between $550 million and $700 million per year.
Strawberries are one of the most labor-intensive row crops, yielding more revenue per acre than almost all other crop except marijuana, The Atlantic reported in 1995.
Many organic strawberry workers work in the San Quintín Valley of Mexico, where they are hunched over at the waist for hours. They earn about 12 cents to pick a 1-pound pack, though thousands recently went on strike calling for a higher wage. Farm owners negotiated for days, offering field workers a 15 percent raise, or about $1.20 more a day, but the wage issue went unresolved until labor leaders escalated their pleas to the federal level, according to Al Jazeera America.
“To bend forward all day long, we get tired. When we stand up, our waist really hurts,” Ernesto Morales, a 60-year-old strawberry picker, told Al Jazeera America. He explained that his wife wakes up at 4 a.m. six days a week to prepare lunch and that the two of them board a 5:45 a.m. bus to be delivered to a strawberry ranch, whose distributor in the U.S. is the California-based Driscoll’s.
Strawberry workers are also exposed to pesticides with some regularity. Rodrigo Perea, a Mexican national, was 15 years old when he began working in strawberry fields, but he experienced nausea, dizziness and fainting spells, according to New America Media. “I was feeling so bad, I wanted to throw up,” Perea told the publication. “But I went back to work in a few minutes because I needed the money.”
Some dairy workers in upstate New York, home to one of the largest Greek yogurt producers, have alleged widespread wage theft, harassment, and other forms of abuse, WBUR reported.
That issue also extends to Vermont, where 40 percent of 172 dairy farmworkers asserted that they received less than the state minimum wage, according to a 2014 Migrant justice survey. As many as 40 percent of famworkers also said that they worked 60 to 80 hours a week, while 40 percent have no day off. At least 30 percent of workers also reported that they live in overcrowded housing, another 30 percent said that they suffered from a workplace injury.
In 2010, José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a dairy farmworker, was killed when his clothes got caught in a ‘gutter scraper’ without proper safety protections, according to Migrant Justice. “His winter clothes were wound so tight around him he was strangled to death,” the advocacy group noted.
Some dairy farmworkers are H-2 visa holders, a special visa designated for agriculture and other similarly skilled programs. But H-2 visa holders are just as likely to be subjected to low wages and other forms of exploitation as undocumented immigrants. According to a May 2015 Economic Policy Institute report, guest workers, like those sponsored through the H-2A or H-2B visa programs earn “about 11 percent less than” green-card holders and “their wages do not significantly differ from unauthorized workers’ wages.” That’s in part because H-2 visa holders are tied to their employers to keep their visas valid, so they can’t change employers or jobs while working in the United States.