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Three Things To Know About Immigrants in the Food Supply Chain

1. Official Numbers ≠ Real Numbers

Immigrants play a large role in making sure the food you buy gets to your kitchen table seamlessly, and migrant workers are critical in every step of the food supply chain. From 2014-2018, immigrants represented far larger shares of many of the industries involved in growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, and selling food to American families. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants represent 22 percent of all workers in the U.S. food industry (about 2.1 million of its nearly 10 million people), not including restaurants. However, some estimates think the actual number is closer to 70 percent due to the lack of data on undocumented immigrants. 

Feeling continuously overlooked and angered at the treatment they receive, immigrants rallied together and participated in Day Without Immigrants in 2017. This was to protest the Trump administration’s plans to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, and to potentially deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. On February 16, 2017, immigrant laborers did not go to work, and as a result many businesses were forced to shut down for the day because a large percentage of the businesses and organizations were immigrants.  


2. There Are Few Legal Protections for Immigrants.

There is a systematic lack of legal protections for immigrant workers in the food supply chain. This means they are particularly vulnerable to worsening labor conditions, including the effects of climate change.

For example, ICE raids are devastating for the immigrant workforce. Recently, memorandums of understanding between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor attempt to ensure that workers won’t be arrested as part of an enforcement operation while a labor investigation is ongoing.

There have been some legal steps to provide immigrant food chain workers with more opportunities. But much more needs to be done! The most recent law put in place regarding immigrant farm workers was in 1986 under former President Ronald Reagan. Much has changed in 40 years, making it increasingly important to enact positive change. Listed below is the history of some of the laws relating to immigrant farm workers. 


Mexican Farm Labor Agreement: Mexico and the U.S., on August 4, 1942, signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, starting what was known as the Bracero Program to help the U.S. compensate for the severe domestic labor shortages caused by World War II.

Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951: The “Bracero” agreement was extended with the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951, an amendment to the Agricultural Act of 1949 (aka the 1949 Farm Bill), which set the parameters for the Bracero Program until its termination in 1964.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 introduced the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, under which U.S. agricultural employers could legally apply for and hire seasonal foreign farm workers. 

Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA): On November 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that connected immigration enforcement, including employer accountability for hiring undocumented migrant workers, with legal status for then unauthorized immigrants, including the promise of eventual citizenship. IRCA marked the last, large-scale legalization program in U.S. immigration history. 


3. Difficult Working Conditions

Immigrant farm workers experience many challenges. In addition to physically demanding labor and dangerous machinery, migrant farm and production workers are subjected to human trafficking, low wages, and no access to healthcare. 

Their long work days in the sun, with little diversion or entertainment, are very demanding. Therefore, given the increased temperatures around the world, it is no surprise that heat stroke is the leading cause of work-related deaths for farmworkers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), farm workers die from heat-related illnesses at an alarmingly dangerous rate (20 times greater than the rest of the U.S. civilian workers).

Furthermore, farm workers often live in isolated, rural areas, with little to no transportation. This makes it challenging and expensive to get to work. Due to the intensity and stress that migrant farm workers face, many experience high levels of anxiety and depression. According to a research article published in the National Library of Medicine, poor mental health has been documented in between 20 percent to 50 percent of migrant farmworkers. 

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