As the sun beats down on a family farm in McFarland, California, immigrant workers duck under a leafy canopy of cotton candy grapes for a moment of relief. It’s 5:56 a.m., and temperatures are quickly rising.
Draped in cotton from fingers to toes, with only their eyes exposed to the sun, the workers plant, pick and prune six days a week, row after dusty row, year after year. Norteño music beats a country tune in the background as they talk with each other over breakfast tacos. Immigrants are the foundation of farm-to-table, especially during a pandemic. Immigrant workers in America are the people who work in fields, cook and package takeout orders in restaurants, and mop the floors and stock shelves at grocery stores.
Among the nation’s 50 million immigrants from more than 150 countries, most are more likely to be service, construction, and transportation employees than native-born workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They include refugees who become small business owners, like the corner Middle Eastern restaurant or the Indian grocery store. Even before the pandemic, they were considered essential employees but, advocates say, were often overlooked.
“We do a great disservice to the families, we set up a system that is hard to break free from,” said Elliot Lepe, a Georgia resident and a paralegal at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s hard to have savings. It’s hard to have retirement. Their bodies break down. It just solidifies poverty, poverty that is hard to escape.”
Another advocacy group, FWD.us, wants lawmakers to open a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, so they can get benefits such as stimulus money, business loans, and the relief of knowing they have a safety net. “Lawmakers recognize that we have an enormous opportunity ahead of us to really reform our broken immigration system into something that serves our families and something that can improve our economy,” spokesperson Leezia Dhalla said.
Ortega, the former farmworker, said the Biden administration needs to step up. “I hope the president sees the importance of giving immigration reform now for all farmworkers,” Ortega said. “Because, actually, they are very valuable to the field.”
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