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America’s Agricultural Workforce: Theory vs. Reality

September 27, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


farm worker


Last week, the House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing, “Protecting America’s Harvest.”  The focus of the hearing was the agricultural workforce,

The debate was largely between theory and reality.

Republicans represented the theoretical view that, as Lamar Smith from Texas put it, “for every illegal immigrant removed, an opportunity is created for an American to be employed.”  In this view, all that is needed is for immigration laws to be enforced.  Then, all unemployed Americans would have jobs, farmers would have workers, and everyone would live happily ever after.

Pitted against this view was the reality that, despite various efforts to recruit them, not enough Americans are willing to do agricultural work, and so American agriculture has become dependent on foreign labor, largely undocumented.  This view was represented by Arturo Rodriguez, of United Farm Workers and the “Take Our Jobs” campaign.  The campaign is really an effort to call the bluff of those who hold the theoretical view.  In more than three months of effort, that project has placed seven American workers who have stayed with their farm jobs.

Take Our Jobs is only the most recent experiment to test the theory that enough Americans can be recruited to fill out our agricultural workforce.  In the late 1990’s, after Congress passed welfare reform, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) insisted on establishment of a program to try to place persons receiving welfare into farm jobs in California.  Despite high unemployment, fewer than five workers were successfully placed.  (It was this experiment that made Senator Feinstein a supporter of the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS).)

Another recurring theme of the hearing: there would be plenty of Americans doing farm work if only the pay and working conditions were better.

Phil Glaize, a witness who owns an apple orchard and who represented grower advocates for AgJOBS, noted that he pays his workers more than they can make “flipping burgers,” and still he must rely on foreign workers.  Congresswomen Judy Chu (D-CA) noted that there are plenty of Americans employed in jobs paying lower wages, yet they aren’t deterred from those jobs.

The star of the hearing was Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who testified of his experience working on a farm in upstate New York for a day.  He (along with Phil Glaize) warned us of the consequences we will face if we believe too much in the theory and don’t pay attention to the reality:  “I’m a big believer in the free market,” he said,

“but the invisible hand of the market has moved 84,000 acres of crops to Mexico.  Apparently the invisible hand of the market doesn’t want to pick beans either.”

Something good may come out of this hearing.  Several of the Republican members spoke of the poor wages and working conditions of agricultural workers.  Picking up on that theme, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who chairs the subcommittee, concluded the hearing by saying that she might introduce a bill that would strengthen legal protections for farmworkers—making sure they have the right to organize, that they can obtain unemployment compensation, and that they receive at least the minimum wage.  She said that she hoped that her Republican colleagues, who “spoke so passionately” about the poor conditions farmworkers must endure, would join her in the endeavor.

Image by Flickr user beckcowles.


Update: Take Our Jobs

September 23, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger



Immigration restrictionists tell us that immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, are “stealing American jobs.”  This assertion is a favorite during economic hard times.


Our friends over at United Farm Workers have been conducting a sort of laboratory experiment to test this hypothesis.  They have a Web site set up to assist Americans in finding a job as a farmworker.  Today they posted an update on the experiment.


Since the Web site was created, there have been 3,000,000 visitors.  Of those, just 8,600 have expressed an interest in seeking employment.  Perhaps many of the rest find the job description unappealing:


“Job may include using hand tools such as knives, hoes, shovels, etc. Duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting & packing of harvested produce. May set up & operate irrigation equip. Work is performed outside in all weather conditions (Summertime 90+ degree weather) & is physically demanding requiring workers to bend, stoop, lift & carry up to 50 lbs on a regular basis.”


Of the 8,600, only seven have stuck with the process and been placed in a job in agriculture.  The union is working with another 368 to train and place them, if they stick it out.


This admittedly unscientific experiment nevertheless provides an interesting glimpse past the rhetoric into the reality of agriculture in the U.S. today.  As the union notes,


“…there are more politicians and finger-pointers interested in blaming undocumented farm workers for America's unemployment crisis then there are unemployed Americans who are willing to harvest and cultivate America's food.”


A very large proportion of America’s agricultural workforce is undocumented.  Legislation has been introduced to offer these immigrants a chance to legalize their status.  The legislation, known as AgJOBS, has been crafted in collaboration between farmworker advocates and growers.  Both have a stake in protecting and stabilizing this work force.  So do we: if our immigration laws are not reformed, we can look forward to having more of our food grown elsewhere.


Tomorrow, the House Immigration Subcommittee will hold a hearing, Protecting America’s Harvest, where these issues will be discussed, and practical solutions explored.  At the hearing, Arturo Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers, will discuss the Take Our Jobs experiment. 


Also testifying will be one American who went through the process and worked in an agricultural job (for a day)—Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.  On his show last night, he aired an interview with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, Chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, just prior to his stint as farmworker.  (You can see that interview here.  His farmworker experience will be aired during tonight’s show.)


The hearing will be Webcast, and you should be able to find a link to it on this page of the House Judiciary Committee’s Web site.

Image by Flickr user Faith Unlimited.

Republicans Block Defense Debate, Dashing DREAM Hopes for Now

September 21, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Today, the Senate voted on a Motion to Invoke Cloture on a Motion to Proceed with debate on the National Defense Authorization Act. A cloture motion is offered when Senators threaten to filibuster a bill. For a cloture motion to succeed, three-fifths of the Senate must agree (60 votes). Otherwise, there is no agreement to limit debate. As a practical matter, legislation is pulled from the Senate floor if Senators cannot end a filibuster.

The cloture motion on the defense bill did not gain the necessary 60 votes. All Senate Republicans voted against the cloture motion, and they were joined by Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both of Arkansas. (Majority Leader Reid also voted no, but his vote was procedural, preserving his right as Majority Leader to bring the bill back to the Senate floor at a later date.) The final vote was 56 to 43.

Senator Reid had planned to offer the DREAM Act as an amendment to the Defense bill, but since there was no agreement to proceed with the defense bill, there will be no DREAM amendment (or any other amendment).

If the DREAM Act were ever to gain a vote on its merits, it would likely pass. However, by voting against cloture, Senators were able to avoid taking a stand on DREAM (and on the other amendments to be offered). During a brief debate on the Senate floor, Republican Senators raised a host of objections, not all of them having to do with the DREAM Act.

Regarding the DREAM Act, however, some Senators objected to having it attached to the defense bill because it was not "relevant," even though serving in the military is one way students would be able to gain legal status and passage of the DREAM Act is included in a Defense Department document outlining its strategic goals for maintaining an all-volunteer military force. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) at one point offered Republican support for proceeding with debate on the defense bill provided no immigration amendments would be considered among the first 20 amendments. This was a pretty clear signal of the minority's opposition to the DREAM Act. The offer was rejected.

You can see how your Senator voted here:

The vote came after a tremendous outpouring of support for the DREAM Act. Supporters around the country by the tens of thousands contacted their Senators offices. Supporters organized 70 events in 26 states to urge passage of the DREAM Act. (See this press release from Reform Immigration FOR America.)

In Washington, the President and some of his cabinet secretaries were engaged in support of the DREAM Act. Last week, the President spoke of his support of the DREAM Act at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's Annual Awards Gala. Today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan participated in a press briefing about the DREAM Act with leaders of educational institutions and DREAM students. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has also spoken recently of the Administration's support for the DREAM Act.

Others who have spoken out in the past few days include General Colin Powell and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. (See this article from our ImmPolitic blog for more on the outpouring of DREAM Act support.)

In the end, though, the DREAM Act is just the latest of so many issues that have not been considered in this Senate due to Republican filibusters.

After the vote, Senators Reid and Richard Durbin (D-IL, sponsor of the DREAM Act in the last several Congresses) spoke passionately about the DREAM Act, and vowed to bring it back to the Senate in some form. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), also gave a moving speech about his experience as a Japanese American serving in the military during World War II and relating that to the DREAM students who would like to serve in the military today.

There is, however, little time left in this Congress. Senators are expected to go out for campaigning in a couple of weeks. If there is another opportunity at all, it will be during a lame duck session of Congress, after the elections.


Unprecedented Outpouring of Support for DREAM

September 20, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

DREAM Activists on beach


With the possibility of Senate action on the DREAM Act, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of support, and calls to action to urge Senators to support the DREAM Act.  Actions have been organized (and continue over the next couple of days) in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida (including the Miami Beach action pictured above), Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  (For more information on these activities, see this list.)  We are told that more calls have gone in to Senate offices supporting the DREAM Act over the past few days than were generated during the entire reform debate in 2007.  Whew! 


The outpouring of support we have seen is not limited to the large group of enthusiastic young DREAM activists.  Here is a glance at the cross section of support that has been voiced over the past few days.


Sunday, General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was on Meet the Press explaining why passing the DREAM Act was a good thing to do.  He went on to explain that we need to find a way to put undocumented immigrants living and working in this country on a path to citizenship.  You can see the video clip here.


Meanwhile, around the country, editorial boards from large and small newspapers published editorials in support of the DREAM Act.  (You can find a compilation here.)  The New York Times weighed in today, calling the DREAM Act “the best hope for legalizing any significant number of Americans-in-waiting” in this Congress, and a sign that Congress is capable of more than fear-mongering on the immigration issue. 


"The Dream Act alone won’t achieve the large-scale reform the country needs. But it will be a desperately needed affirmation that fixing immigration is not all about border fear and lockdowns. It’s about welcoming the hopeful."


Also today, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement on the Dream Act, saying that the labor federation strongly supports passage of the DREAM Act and noting that the “livelihood and future of hundreds of thousands of our youth are at stake.”


The DREAM Act is targeted to young people who would, as a condition for gaining full legal status, complete at least two years of college or serve at least two years in the military.  It is not surprising, then, that supporters include college educators and the military.  The Defense Department includes the DREAM Act as part of its strategic goal to “shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force.” 


It’s not clear whether the DREAM Act will ultimately overcome the resistance to getting anything done that has plagued this Congress.  Whatever the outcome, however, our politicians are hearing from many thousands of people across the country who are determined to keep this issue before Congress until it is done.


It’s not too late to weigh in with your Senators.  You can still become part of the outpouring of support.  The Senate will take a procedural vote on Tuesday (September 21) to determine whether to proceed with debate on the Defense Authorization bill to which the DREAM Act will be attached.


Write your Senators, using this letter we have created to make it easy.


Call your Senators.  Reform Immigration FOR America makes it easy here:


Fax your Senators.  Use this tool from America’s Voice.


Learn more about the DREAM Act here.


DREAMing of Congressional Action

September 17, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

DREAM students


For the first time in this Congress, a positive immigration measure—a piece of the comprehensive immigration reform that must ultimately be enacted—may soon come to a vote.


This week, the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, said that the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act will be offered to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate is now considering. 


What is the DREAM Act?  It is legislation that would allow young people brought to this country illegally before they reached 16 years of age to stay in this country under certain conditions. 


Who are these young people?  Many of them came here at a very young age, and have no recollection of the country of their birth.  They have grown up in America.  They look and talk like their classmates who were born here.  Many are clueless about their immigration status—that is, until they try to apply for college.  No matter their standing in high school, when they try to continue with their education, they find that they are not qualified for scholarships, and in most states don’t even qualify for the resident tuition rate in their states’ university systems.


The odds are stacked against them.  Even when they are able to pursue a college education, they graduate from college without authorization to work.


On the flip side, America is losing a tremendous investment.  DREAM students have gone through our schools and could, if Congress would act, give back so much to this country, converting their education into careers in engineering, in teaching, in the military….


Who are these young people?  There are some, like “TexRancher” and so many others who comment after any news article that appears on line, who call them ILLEGALS—as if following their parents across a border makes them sinister.  You can get to know some of these young people here, thanks to the work of America’s Voice, which is posting their letters and videos to President Obama.  Unlike those who write the hate-filled on-line comments, these young people are not hiding—despite the possibility of deportation.  (You can read more of their stories here on Web site of DREAMActivist.) If only Congress had one-tenth the courage….


The DREAM Act would allow these young people to resolve their immigration status if they came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been here for five years or more.  Additionally, they would have to finish high school or earn a GED.  They first gain a conditional status for six years during which time they must complete two years of college or serve two years in the military.  The bill faces long odds.


Here is the procedural outlook: The DREAM Act will be offered as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.  It is not the only amendment that is generating controversy.  Republicans have vowed to filibuster the Defense bill.  That means there will be a vote on whether or not to proceed with a debate on the Defense bill.  That vote is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon (September 21).  If that vote fails to gain the 60 votes needed to cut off debate on the Defense bill, the filibuster will kill the Defense bill, and there will be no vote on DREAM.  If the Senate proceeds with debate on the Defense bill, there will be separate efforts to filibuster DREAM and the other controversial amendments.  A vote on DREAM could come only after 60 votes are rounded up to stop the filibuster against it.  Only if that vote is successful will there actually be a vote on DREAM itself.  Then, it will need a simple majority of Senators to pass.  The whole process could drag out through next week, if it doesn’t die on Tuesday.


You can help. 


Write your Senators, using this letter we have created to make it easy.


Call your Senators.  Reform Immigration FOR America makes it easy here:


Fax your Senators.  Use this tool from America’s Voice.


The Senate will need to hear from a lot of people. As partisan as this Congress has been, and as difficult as it has been to get anything done in Congress up to now, it is doubly difficult to get positive change in an election season.


Learn more about the DREAM Act here.


Image: Maurice Belanger.

What’s the Pitch?

September 08, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

the pitch


Congress returns next week after a long break.  There will be about four weeks of legislative activity before they leave town for campaigning.  Or rather, it might be more accurate to say there will be about 3 ½ weeks of partisan posturing and, oh, maybe a day or two of legislative activity.


There is a long list of unfinished business. 


First off, the government runs out of money at the end of the month, the end of the government’s fiscal year.  In theory, Congress passes a series of 12 appropriations bills to fund the various agencies of the government for the coming fiscal year, which begins October first.  As you can see from this list, so far Congress has completed zero out of the 12 appropriations bills.  Some haven’t even been introduced.  The House has passed two; the Senate zero.


No one believes that Congress will complete its work on the spending bills.  Instead, there will likely be one or more “continuing resolutions,” keeping the government running on the same funding basis as the current fiscal year until, after the election, there will likely be some variation of one giant messy omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government for the coming year.


In addition to spending bills, President Obama is urging Congress to pass a series of proposals to provide further stimulus to the economy—to include additional spending on infrastructure projects and tax cuts and tax breaks for businesses.  Legislation to provide some boost to the economy will likely be a priority for Democrats going in to the elections.  Republicans, meanwhile, will continue to try to block everything, even though they are normally champions of tax breaks.


Aside from the spending bills, there are critical policy reforms still sitting on the Congressional agenda—among them, comprehensive immigration reform and energy and climate legislation.


You might recall that this summer’s Congressional break was interrupted when the House and Senate were called back to session in order to vote on, among other things, a $600 million package of additional enforcement resources to be deployed on the southwest border—never mind that people who actually live on the border say they feel safe in their communities and that crime is down in Arizona, where much of the current border hysteria originates. 


When the bill passed in the Senate, Senator Schumer said that with border security taken care of, we can move on to comprehensive immigration reform.


This bill is enormously important because it will clear the path for the bipartisan discussions we need to have about our immigration system.”


We have yet to see a comprehensive reform bill.  We have just passed the one-year anniversary of the date (Labor Day, 2009) when Senator Schumer said he thought “we’ll have a good bill.”


A new poll released yesterday by the Washington Post and ABC News indicates that “among those most likely to vote this fall, the Republican advantage [is] 53 percent to the Democrats' 40 percent.”  The key is “among those most likely to vote.” 


In the Spanish-language press, Latino voters and immigrants are often being reminded that “La Promesa de Obama” on immigration reform is unfulfilled.  While the President is, at least to some extent, being unfairly blamed for the failure of Congress to do its job (as Andrea Nill at the Center for American Progress argues in this blog post), it is not hard to imagine that part of the population that is not in the category of “those most likely to vote” are Latino voters discouraged by the lack of progress on immigration reform. 


Democrats could mitigate some of this problem by showing some effort to push immigration reform by, for example, introducing a bill.  Until there is some sign that Senator Schumer and his fellow Democrats are really ready to move on to comprehensive immigration reform, it’s hard to figure what will be the pitch to move Latino voters into the category of “likely to vote” in the fall.


Image by Flickr user MissChatter.

U.S. Submits its First Human Rights Review to U.N.

September 02, 2010 - Posted by Brittney Nystrom



The United States submitted its first-ever report to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on August 20, evaluating how the nation is fulfilling its human rights obligations.  Such reports are now required every four years from all United Nations members as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, established in 2006 and conducted through the UN Human Rights Council.  Essentially, this reporting process affords nations the chance to self-evaluate their human rights record.  The U.S. report will next be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, this fall.


Input to inform the report was gathered over the past several months in consultation with civil society organizations with diverse viewpoints, constituencies, and locations.  Summaries of the various consultations are posted by the U.S. Department of State on their website (including one in which the Forum participated, addressing the rights of migrants).  According to the State Department, the review “provides an opportunity to reflect on our human rights record and we hope will serve as an example for other countries on how to conduct a thorough, transparent, and credible UPR presentation.”


Although human rights obligations cover an enormous range—from voting rights to rights of indigenous persons—the United States found space to discuss the human rights of immigrants.  This inclusion has already ruffled some political feathers.  By dutifully noting the Department of Justice’s courtroom battle against Arizona’s “papers please” law in their report, the government so upset Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that she wrote a letter to Secretary of State Clinton demanding that the reference to the Arizona law be stricken.  Gov. Brewer is running for election this November.


Beyond the reference to the embattled Arizona immigration law, numerous mentions of the rights of immigrants and the national commitment to ensuring equality before the law for all are sprinkled throughout the 25 pages of the report. 


In a section on post-9/11 practices, the government proclaims its commitment to protect the rights of and to combat discrimination against Muslim, Arab-American and South Asian American persons.  By way of example, the report cites limitations on country-specific travel bans and an ongoing review of how law enforcement agencies use race and national origin. 


Another section discusses efforts to achieve excellence in education for children for whom English is a second language and who may face language discrimination in public schools. 


The most extensive discussion of human rights commitments to immigrants falls under the heading of “Values and Immigration.”  Alongside the deserved self-recognition for its acceptance of millions of refugees and for undertaking to reform the immigration detention system, the government acknowledges “challenges in developing and enforcing immigration law and policies that reflect economic, social, and national security realities.” 


Unfortunately, these challenges will persist as long as we lack meaningful reform to our creaking immigration system; the current laws are a far way off from current realities.  Many enforcement efforts the Government touts as improvements would not be necessary—or would not be so overwhelming—if our immigration system got the reform it requires.  Reforming our immigration detention system, for example, is a far more formidable task because immigrants who have been living and working in our country for years are thrown in jail instead of given work visas.  (We recently assessed the government’s limited progress in making the immigration detention system more civil here and here.)


Some recognized “improvements” in the government’s report refer to flawed programs that should be scrapped altogether.  State and local police operating under 287(g) agreement wouldn’t need the better oversight or stronger guidelines touted in the report if the government did the right thing and terminated this deeply flawed program.  (Learn more about why the program is inherently flawed here and here.


On a note of optimism, the United States assures the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that change is coming for our immigration system.  This is a welcome (and hopefully not hollow) assurance.  In the words of the report,


“President Obama remains firmly committed to fixing our broken immigration system, because he recognizes that our ability to innovate, our ties to the world, and our economic prosperity, depend on our capacity to welcome and assimilate immigrants.  The Administration will continue its efforts to work with the U.S. Congress and affected communities toward this end.”


That is a commitment we hope is fulfilled when the United States submits its next scheduled UPR report in 4 years.


Image by Flickr user Marionzetta.


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