Farm workers are deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic. But many of these critical workers won’t reap the benefits of the $2.2 trillion stimulus package that lawmakers recently passed because of their legal status.
Relatives of people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s custody cope with fears about the possible spread of COVID-19 inside crowded detention centers.
Coronavirus: “The Threat Is Not Just To The Health And Safety Of Farmworkers, It’s To The Safety Of The Food Supply Itself”
There are 2.5 million agricultural workers in the U.S. and roughly half are undocumented. As a result, a large portion of this critical workforce does not have wage protections, many live in fear of deportation and they lack health insurance — a benefit that can mean life or death as the coronavirus spreads across the country.
The U.S. government says farm workers are essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, just like first responders, health care workers and countless others who cannot work from home.
However, because of their legal status, half of all agricultural workers in the U.S. are not getting a cut of the $2 trillion government stimulus package.
Marc Grossman is a spokesperson with United Farm Workers of America, a labor union for farm workers established in 1962 and led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta.
Grossman, Chávez’s speechwriter and aid for 24 years, said there’s a big double standard when the government vilifies undocumented migrants while still referring to over a million of them as essential.
“They really are American heroes,” Grossman said. “Because they're putting themselves at risk every day by going to work.”
As farm workers harvest the fresh produce on which millions depend, there are no social distancing protocols in place. That puts them in a difficult position as they’re caught between fears of the coronavirus and feeding the nation.
But the recent shift in American consumer habits is also having a damaging effect on farm workers.
Shoppers are lining up outside grocery stores hours before they open and depleting supplies at an alarming rate, some of which aren’t restocked until the next day. Grossman said since many farm workers spend the majority of their days in the field, they often can’t make their own trips to the store until the evenings when most commodities have already been swiped from the shelves.
“Imagine what would happen if COVID-19 ravages the farm worker population and the fresh fruits and vegetables and other commodities that rely on farm workers,” said Grossman. “So the threat is not just to the health and safety of farm workers, it's to the safety of the food supply itself.”
The ACLU of Texas filed a lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this week, calling on the federal agency to release detained immigrants who are highly vulnerable to serious illness and death from the COVID-19 global pandemic. ACLU’s suit was filed on behalf of four immigrants detained at the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe, Texas but similar calls are being issued for detainees across the country.
One family will soon see the results of the pressure placed on immigration officials.
Ydelbis Arevalo Portuondo recently received word her husband, Juan Diaz Rodriguez, will be released from ICE’s Otero County Processing Center in southern New Mexico.
Rodriguez, 56, is diabetic and that places him at a higher risk of contracting the lethal respiratory virus. Rodriguez has been in ICE custody for five months after the couple from Cuba entered the U.S. seeking asylum together last summer. Portuondo was released on bond last fall and is staying with his relatives in Florida.
Before Portuondo received word of her husband’s release, Rodriguez said he feared the only way he would get out of detention was in a black body bag.
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