My name is Yahaira Caceres, the Immigration and Labor Policy Coordinator at the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers). As May Day rolls around, I am thinking about how we can advocate for workers’ rights as an organization and show up in solidarity with farmworkers. I thought this blog post would be the perfect opportunity to introduce myself and update our members and partners on our commitment to racial equity. We are also honored to include a statement from our partners at Alianza Nacional de Campesinas–their statement on farmworker rights is shared below.
I am a queer migrant farmworker raised in the small immigrant agricultural community of Immokalee in southwest Florida. Because my parents were undocumented for over ten years, the only work that was accessible to them was agricultural fieldwork. The seasonal nature of this work led us to migrate between Florida and northern states following fieldwork that was available in the summers and early fall.
At an early age, I was exposed to many of the inequalities that immigrant farmworkers face in the United States. Something that stayed with me and impacted my career goals was witnessing the abuses employers would get away with. Regardless of whether these abuses would happen to my family, friends, or other workers that were strangers to me, they all felt so personal. It angered me to see employers hold workers’ undocumented status over them and use that as leverage to exploit them. No one in their workplace should ever feel powerless, not know their rights, or have someone else infringe upon them.
Reflecting on my past working environments, such as produce-packing warehouses or corn fieldwork, I wish I had a say at the time about my working conditions. As I got involved in grassroots organizing, it was empowering to come together as a community and fight for the change and conditions we deserve. Centering the voices and needs of our communities in our work can go a long way for people from collectivist cultures who are now facing the hardships of living in an individualistic one. Moving forward, I want to turn my anger into pursuing effective change by working on policies that prioritize protecting workers instead of exploitative employers. Workers should have a say and should be the decision-makers in the workplace and during the policy-making process.
I am excited to join Young Farmers during this exciting time of growth and expansion of our resources to center racial equity. We are a farmer organization in solidarity with farmworkers and immigrant workers. This is a space where we follow, not lead, but I am excited to make policy connections in order to combat intersectional food system issues.
When Did “Immigration and Labor Policy Coordinator” Become a Position at Young Farmers?
During the strategic planning process, Young Farmers and our members decided we wanted to be in solidarity with other movements. As an advocacy organization working to change policy for a brighter farm future, we acknowledge the importance of supporting movements advocating for Black, Indigenous, Latine, and other marginalized communities’ issues. As an organization, we believe we cannot talk about the future of agriculture and young farmers without talking about immigration and labor. Some people might think that our solidarity work with farmworkers, immigrants’ rights, and labor justice issues might be out of our lane. But food and agricultural problems are intersectional and transcend rigid silos. Our mission of building a brighter, just future for agriculture is not possible unless we are also advocating for these critical issues. This past February, I was brought onto the team to further our commitment to solidarity with immigration and labor justice movements. This is an opportunity to finally have more staff capacity to engage in these issues.
What Does This Position Look Like for Young Farmers?
As a farm policy organization, we are committed to using our organization’s power to amplify the work of our allies leading this work, including Farmworker Justice, United Farm Workers, Alianza Nacional De Campesinas, and HEAL Food Alliance. We have been working to amplify their efforts to include farmworkers in pandemic relief bills. Policies advocated for in these bills included guaranteed paid sick leave, enforcement of safety and health protections by OSHA, pandemic premium pay, access to PPE, healthcare, and other policy recommendations. We are eager to find our role in the immigration and labor rights movement moving forward. We will continue to meet with our partners leading immigration advocacy to see how we can further support them and see what issues they want us to address and focus on. We will be supporting and advocating for farmworkers as we work to build a more just and brighter food system future.
May Day Statement: Pressing Immigration and Labor Issues
As we think about workers’ rights this May Day, we think about the workers who hold up our food system. We celebrate May Day by highlighting the experiences of farmworkers as they are essential to the success of our food system. Every worker contributing to our society, especially essential workers, deserves to have full labor rights and to be treated with dignity. We work toward eliminating the exploitation of farmworkers and towards the full recognition and respect of their expertise, rights, and freedoms. We recognize that the agricultural history in this country is rooted in white supremacy and stolen labor. The consequences of systemic racism still persist in our agricultural system.
A healthy agricultural future requires immigration reform that includes protections of documented status for farmworkers, full labor protections, and more effective enforcement of labor violations. Supporting the transition of immigrants, farmworkers, and food systems workers to farm ownership and other agricultural roles will make our agricultural system resilient and diversified.
At Young Farmers, it is in our guiding principles to challenge capitalism. Agricultural policy exists within a capitalist system that favors profit and wealth accumulation over community needs and the social good. As a consequence, we endure an agricultural system that urges consolidation, perpetuates wealth inequality, and exploits labor. In supporting farmers for a sustainable future, a sustainable future also means challenging the labor violations experienced by farmworkers. Many agricultural workers, but specifically farmworkers, are exploited, undervalued, and underpaid. Farmworkers face harsh working conditions and are disproportionately likely to experience workplace violations such as wage theft. The fear of immigration-based retaliation from employers prevents farmworkers from reporting the abuse and other workplace violations. The same workers that harvest the food on our tables struggle to afford to feed their children. They fear experiencing sexual assault from their employers and lack access to reporting the abuse due to language barriers and retaliation. Many fear for their health and the health of their children as they are exposed to harmful pesticides and rising deadly heat waves.
Creating a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers would also mean that more farmworkers would be able to become farm owners. With more than 40% of U.S. farmland expected to change hands in the next 20 years, millions of acres of land will need new farmers to steward it. The pandemic has shown how essential immigrant workers and farmworkers are to the success of our food system. Despite contributing to our society in such a tremendous way, many workers live in fear. Many essential workers fear deportation when going to the grocery store to meet their needs. Many farmworkers, due to their undocumented status, lack essential benefits such as healthcare, pandemic relief, the freedom of movement, the right to organize, and most importantly labor protections. Many immigrants go years without being able to visit their families back in their country of origin due to the immigration processing backlog. In December 2021, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a human tracking case in South Georgia that is tied to the H2-A guest worker visa program. In the case of Operation Blooming Onion, workers were forced to work and live at gunpoint. Human rights violations are an unfortunate reality for many undocumented farmworkers all over the country. All workers in the U.S. deserve full labor protections, especially immigrant workers.
A Statement from our partners at the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas
Ever since 1886, when protests concerning the Haymarket Affair shook the city of Chicago and the world, immigrant workers have been at the center of May Day. Channeling the same intrepid spirit, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a farmworker women-led organization, is at the forefront of initiatives that seek to address the needs of women farmworkers, the vast majority of whom are immigrants.
Let’s remember that whereas the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act recognized the labor movement’s struggle to gain the right to collective bargaining, agricultural laborers were excluded. To this day, only California and New York recognize the right of rural laborers to bargain with their employers over such basic matters as wages and work conditions. The state of New York only conceded this right to workers in 2020. As a result, Alianza’s work on farmworker rights, in addition to our work on gender-based violence, immigration reform, and challenging the use of toxic pesticides, remains critical and urgent.
Alianza features 15 organizations in 20 states, which together represent over 700,000 engaged chingona members. We actively campaigned to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA expands protections for survivors by directing resources to “culturally specific” programs, requiring trauma-informed training for law enforcement, creating programs that improve evidence collection, including technology that better detects bruising across skin tones, broadening access to legal services, providing express inclusion of transgender victims of violence, and affirming Native American tribal jurisdiction in prosecuting perpetrators. Such resources are vital to our communities. According to our own internal study, we estimate that 9 out of 10 farmworker women have experienced some form of gender-based violence in the workplace. Documentaries such as PBS/Frontline’s Rape in the Fields back up what our membership has told us.
Such violence is so rampant, in no small part, because over half of the 3 million or so farmworkers in the United States are undocumented. The fear of deportation is a daily fact of life for millions who pick and harvest most of our country’s crops. The larger undocumented population is roughly 12 million, with many undocumented people working throughout the food system, including in restaurants and meatpacking facilities. For this reason, Alianza continues to advocate for a comprehensive immigration reform package that would provide relief to so many marginalized individuals tirelessly working so that Americans have abundant access to food. Meanwhile, as long as the exploitation of farmworkers goes unaddressed, efforts to promote local food systems or sustainable agriculture greenwash our people’s injuries.
In the fields, Alianza also fights for basic work protections. Take for example looking for shade, or having access to drinking water, which may seem like common, taken-for-granted things one would do to deal with a hot day. Yet for farmworkers, such simple needs are not guaranteed by employers. The Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act is legislation that Alianza has long pushed for in order to address these virulent injustices in the field. Asuncion Valdivia, a farmworker from California, died after picking grapes for ten hours straight in 105-degree temperatures. Additionally, Alianza regularly pressures the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to do their jobs and enforce what few regulatory protections exist. By that, we mean conducting actual, good faith inspections of farms to ensure that owners are offering real protections to workers. As they are conducted now, too often government inspectors and farmers collude. With more than enough time to cosmetically improve their operations on the day or so when the inspection takes place, landowners manage to conceal the harm that they regularly subject their employees to. For this reason, we demand not only more funding for these government agencies but also improved, thorough, and honest inspections of those farms and ranches where rural workers struggle to make their livelihoods.
Hopefully the protests and demonstrations–mainly organized by immigrants on this May Day–will remind you of the farmworkers, especially women, who are in the fields. Know that we don’t want your pity. We don’t want your thanks. We want our basic rights and protections and for them to be upheld and respected. We want justice. So, stand with us, that is if you care about truly creating a just and fair food system.