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  • Mary Jo Dudley

Immigration Reform: Farmworker Voices

By Mary Jo Dudley

Immigration reform is a priority among farmworkers in New York State, yet current legislative proposals offer a complex and unsatisfactory process for achieving this goal. The most recent U.S. comprehensive immigration reform was the Immigration and Reform Control Act (ICRA) of 1986. That legislation resulted in approximately 2.7 million undocumented residents adjusting their immigration status. IRCA’s Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program was designed to address labor concerns expressed by agricultural employers. However, it was estimated that just 350,000 farmworkers benefitted from that reform.

Despite ongoing interest in immigration relief for undocumented farmworkers and increased immigration enforcement putting these workers at higher risk for deportation, subsequent immigration reform proposals for farmworkers repeatedly failed. The Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) was introduced in 1998, with subsequent versions reappearing in 2003, 2007 and 2009. However, none of these received sufficient legislative support to pass.

While the mainstream media portray the recent bills, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) and the Affordable and Secure Foods Act (AFSA), as compromises supported by farmworkers, farmworkers in NYS voiced deep concerns about potential negative impacts should these become law. Together with farmworkers and their member organizations, including Alianza Agrícola, we initiated a collaborative research project to gain farmworkers’ perspectives on these legislative proposals. We conducted individual interviews with farmworkers to learn if they would participate in this program should it become law and examined their willingness and ability to comply with the many requirements.

The FWMA passed in the House of Representatives in March 2021 and was celebrated as a successful compromise among bipartisan legislators, employers, and farmworker representatives in response to a critical shortage of agricultural labor. The Senate version of the legislation, renamed AFSA, was introduced during the lame-duck session of December 2022. Despite the inherent increased costs associated with transitioning to an H2A workforce (including round trip and local transportation, DOL-inspected housing, and higher hourly wage), proponents claimed that this legislation would lower food prices. Despite widespread, ongoing support among farmworkers for comprehensive immigration reform and nearly 40 years of legislative inaction, little is known about farmworkers’ perspectives on federal legislation intended to offer them immigration relief.

Both the FWMA and AFSA propose a lengthy pathway to legalization (up to 14 years), a continued commitment to work in agriculture (4-8 years), and a number of measures that would force undocumented workers to share their immigration status with the US Government while awaiting a decision on approval of a 5 ½ year visa to work as Certified Agricultural Workers (CAW). In addition to the continued commitment to work in agriculture, undocumented workers would be required to pay fines, application fees, and unpaid taxes.

Both the FWMA and the ASFA allow current undocumented farmworkers the option to adjust their status to CAW by fulfilling a series of requirements, including 1) proving their history of working in agriculture for at least 180 workdays in the 2 years prior to the introduction of the bill; 2) satisfactorily pass a required background check; 3) pay an application fee of $250 or more; 4) share their undocumented status through e-verify, and 5) agree to work 4-8 additional years in agriculture. Individuals with CAW status would be able to adjust their immigration status to a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status by fulfilling another set of requirements, including 1) a penalty fee ($750-$1,000); 2) processing fees (of undisclosed value); and 3) demonstrated proof of having paid taxes.

None of the farmworkers we interviewed were in favor of these legislative proposals, and several highlighted how both bills fall far short of what they need.

“It is very important to be informed since we need comprehensive immigration reform. Sometimes immigration reform proposals seem like a good reform, but when we closely examine all the details, we learn that these proposals aren’t to our benefit.”

A primary concern among NYS-based farmworkers is that they were not included in deliberations about these bills, and concessions were made on their behalf without their input. In several instances, farmworkers noted that union representatives had visited their farms and encouraged them to sign on to support the FWMA. Many resented that “unknown individuals” had tried to convince them that the bill would benefit them. They explained that during deliberations, the UFW had to “make concessions” over certain aspects, such as e-verify.

“The UFW has to be aware that they aren’t the only ones that represent workers, and they shouldn’t speak on our behalf or represent us in these deals. All groups should be informed and actively involved in these discussions. It is not fair that they (UFW) will gain political and economic benefits from this bill. UFW will be positioned as the “national recruiter.” This will increase their economic power. I worry about corruption since they will be the only ones working at a national level. It seems very distasteful to me.”

Another worker noted:

“It is so strange because it appears that those who negotiated on our behalf don’t seem to have spoken with people who are doing this type of work. We contribute to the economy with our hard labor. It seems that they (UFW) do not really value our work. This is very physically demanding work. We are not sitting behind a desk all day. We are picking bushels of apples, filling huge apple boxes, and climbing up and down ladders. We do all of this under the hot sun or when it’s raining or when it’s cold outside. I don’t think they understand this when the lovely fruit arrives at their table.”

“They don’t seem to recognize that we need to spend what we earn on food, rent, and gas to come to work. They included a series of fines and fees in these bills that many of us simply wouldn’t be able to pay. So we would just be out of luck.”

Initially, some of the farmworkers were unaware of the details of either bill and, once they learned more, expressed a certain sense of resignation. For some, the conversation ended there. Although both bills include language that promises that their information can’t be shared with immigration officials, interviewees were wary that this would not be the case. A common theme among farmworkers was that they don’t trust the government not to deport them once their personal information was shared. Workers were aware that information sharing with ICE had been breached in neighboring Vermont once farmworkers began to apply for driver’s licenses and noted uncertain futures for those who shared personal information when applying for DACA.

“I’m very, very worried, overly worried. We don’t have (immigration) papers so I wouldn’t be able to work. If I can’t work, we can’t make a living, and we wouldn’t be able to live here.”

Above all, workers were puzzled by the concept of “earned legalization.” Since farmworkers have recently been recognized as “essential” workers, why would they not be eligible for immediate legalization?

“I have so many worries and concerns. I think this legislation doesn’t have all the necessary components… Farmworkers who produce, pick and pack food or care for cows should have something better than having to wait so long and fulfill so many requirements to adjust our (immigration) status. It (legislation) should help workers rather than benefit the crew leaders and farmers. We need a stronger immigration reform that isn’t simply a temporary status that has to be renewed.”

Another stated:

“During the pandemic, we earned the distinction of being considered “essential” workers. We never stopped working and continued to support the economy through our work. From my perspective, we have always been essential. This law does not offer us any real benefits. Most people don’t understand that we came here for a reason - to feed ourselves and our families. We have worked hard to put food on the tables of people here.”

Several spoke about how much they enjoy the work but expressed concern over the required additional years of farm work.

“I enjoy this work very much. I’m good at it and my employers understand that. I am familiar with the moods and likes and dislikes of each cow. I’m not a veterinarian, but the owners often consult with me when an animal isn’t behaving normally. Since I am around the cows all day long, day after day, I often know how to address the problem. I’m proud of my work and the skills I’ve gained over the years. But it seems almost insulting that we would be required to work a certain number of additional years.”

Another added:

“I am very, very happy with my work. I like working outside in the fresh air. Where we work, they recognize how hard we work and that not many people would do this work. The farmer tried hiring some locals, but they couldn’t keep up with the work for very long. I worked in the packing house before but didn’t find it as satisfying because we were cramped into a small space. I have worked for many years so I have gained the trust of the employer. It seems unfair that to have access to legal papers, we would have to agree to 4 or 8 more years of work. That sounds like the farm would own us like slaves were.”

Should such legislation pass, several would leave farm work entirely to seek employment in a less regulated sector.

Although I enjoy working on a dairy and like taking care of animals, I am very afraid of sharing my personal information through e-verify. Although I would normally follow all the rules, the idea of “turning oneself in” is terrifying. Should this law pass, it would create a huge turmoil for my family and my US-born children who are doing well in school. Nonetheless, I would be forced to leave and look for a job in construction.”

Several mentioned that they would return to see their family:

“If that law passed, I would return to Mexico. My dad is 68 years old, and I don’t want to go back when he is elderly. Many of my coworkers had the bad luck of not returning until after their parents passed away.”

Others feared returning to their country:

“If we could live safely in our country, we would be there now. I come from a village that was very quiet and calm. However, people in my town have found dead bodies in the past few months. A dismembered person was left at our town’s entrance, and they found many more bodies beside the road. They could all hear shooting. My dad was walking in his field and found a dead body.”

“I have been saving my money to start a restaurant with my sister in Mexico, but she said opening a restaurant is no longer safe. The drug lords charge all businesses in my town an exorbitant “security” fee. We wouldn’t be able to make any money.”

“I’m very worried because returning to Mexico would be very dangerous for my children. Something could happen to my daughters. They were born in the US and I want them to be able to study here. Returning home would put them at too high of a risk.”

The e-verify requirement raised significant concerns.

“When we talk about the possibility of this law passing, it makes me very nervous and very worried. that there could be a situation in which I wouldn’t be given this work permit (CAW). That would put my family and me at tremendous risk. I’m very worried about this. I hate to think about a situation in which I couldn’t work. I couldn’t support my family.”

Some expressed concern over the required background check.

“I had problems with immigration in 2009. I was stopped by the police for speeding in a small town near here. The police turned me over to immigration. ICE took photos of me and registered my fingerprints. I was put into deportation proceedings, paid $5,000 bail, and returned to Mexico. In Mexico, I reported to the US embassy and was told that I was prohibited from returning to the US for 10 years. However, I returned before the 10-year ban had expired. My parents depend on what I earn to live so I had to return to work. I worry that they (the US government) would find that information and immediately deport me. I’d rather leave before that happens. I know what it is to be held in a detention center and I don’t ever want to relive that experience.”

For others, the requirement to continue to work in agriculture for several more years was seen as onerous.

“I have been working here since 2005. Eighteen years is a long, long time to do this physical work. They are not providing you with any real benefit. They are forcing you…to continue [working]…People are going to leave…..People are not stupid, farmers want to have a guaranteed workforce. I don’t think I could agree to work 4 more years, or however many years they decide will be required.”

Another noted:

“The eight-year requirement does not account for the physical demands of the job, especially for those who have been here for more than a decade.”

Both proposals suggest that undocumented workers could apply for a short-term (5 ½ year) work permit and H2A temporary guest workers would fill labor shortages. In our interviews, workers reflected on how the farm environment would change by having workers of mixed immigration status working together.

“It would be hard to incorporate them (H2A workers) into our team. We work together as a well-oiled team. We have learned skills that you can’t learn quickly.… We would have to train them (H2A workers), which would require more time and effort for us, and take us away from our other responsibilities. Since there are some jobs that are more complicated, such as giving medications to the cows, they wouldn’t know how to do it and couldn’t learn easily. If it isn’t done right, the cows become ill, they can’t produce milk, the farm suffers. If the cows become ill we have the extra burden of trying to do something to heal them.”

Some workers currently work on farms that employ long-term undocumented workers, and bring in H2A workers for several months each year. When discussing the working environment on farms that would employ both CAWS and H2A workers, many expressed concerns:

“H2A workers have different benefits than us. The farmer provides them with transportation. We have to pay for our own transportation. ….We have to pay for our own gas, vehicle, and insurance. The H2A workers don’t have to worry about any of that and have fewer expenses. They are provided good housing since it has to pass inspection by outside inspectors. We pay our own rent. They are almost another class/category of workers with more benefits, fewer expenses, and fewer skills. That isn’t fair to us.”

“We have seen that when the H2A workers arrive, the farmers give them special benefits. We don’t know if they pay taxes. It seems unfair. We work year-round- even when the weather is cold and nasty. We don’t have any breaks to take time off.”

Others expressed concerns about the benefits for H2A workers that wouldn’t be provided to CAWs.

“Non-H-2A workers would be second-class citizens. This would change things greatly because when compared with an undocumented worker, H2A workers would have more benefits. The farmer gave the H2A worker better benefits, had a vehicle to go to town, and had more free rides to places, even though he wasn’t doing as difficult work.”

H2A workers aren’t interested in doing things to improve the workers’ situation or anything that would make the farmer unhappy.”

“As long-term workers, we are the most knowledgeable. A mixed workforce (H2A and CAWs) would likely lead to divisions among workers. Farmers would likely prefer H2A workers. H2A workers would have more benefits: a higher salary; medical insurance, and more paid sick leave. We wouldn’t have that. The farmers would likely give them different or easier work resulting in divisions.”

Conclusion and Next Steps

Through these initial interviews, we learned that no farmworker interviewed was in favor of either the FWMA or AFSA legislation, and they resented that others spoke on their behalf without any apparent consultation. They strongly expressed the view that they deserve better legislation to promote fair immigration relief that should take into account their past and current contributions to the local economy. There is a large gap between what farmworkers would tolerate in regard to legislation already passed and what farmworkers would propose in fair immigration reform legislation. In particular, we noted that farmworkers who do not have US-born children are more likely to seek employment in another non-agricultural employment sector or leave the US entirely. Those with US-born children and close ties to local communities also expressed interest in exploring other areas of employment, such as construction or in the hotel or food sector. In summary, should this legislation pass, agriculture would likely lose some of the most skilled workers. How would this benefit agricultural producers? We plan to continue these conversations with the goal of providing recommendations for policymakers based on the perspectives of farmworkers in NYS.

Mary Jo Dudley is the Director of the Cornell Farmworker Program

Resources & Links:

Zoodsma, A., Dudley, M. J., & Minkoff-Zern, L.-A. (2022). National food security, immigration reform, and the importance of worker engagement in agricultural guestworker debates. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 11(4), 139–151.

Migrant Justice versus DHS and ICE, First Amended Complaint, 5:18-cv-00192-gwc (United State District Court - District of Vermont February 07, 2019).


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