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COMMENTARY: Don’t leave Culpeper’s ‘essential’ farm workers behind

COMMENTARY: Don’t leave Culpeper’s ‘essential’ farm workers behind

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Everyone agrees that farm workers—the people who pick and plant the food we eat, raise the livestock we serve at our tables, and grow the flowers we enjoy—are “essential.” But our local, state and federal policymakers sure don’t treat them that way.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across Virginia, affecting every area of the commonwealth, it is vital that our state’s most vulnerable workers not get left behind.

Advocates at the Legal Aid Justice Center are calling on Virginia to take swift action to protect farm workers’ health and safety. Given that these workers are risking their lives to bring us the food we eat, Virginia should require growers to implement social distancing at agricultural job sites and in crowded migrant labor camps. State officials should implement these and other vital reforms without delay. Otherwise, the current conditions in our state’s agricultural workplaces will continue to put farm workers and the broader community at risk. (Learn more: justice4all.org/protectingfarmworkers.)

Even in the midst of this crisis, Virginia lawmakers also need to look to the future to make sure that the workers who feed us are also able to feed themselves. Because, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, roughly one of every three farm workers lives below the poverty line.

One reason for that is lawmakers’ bad habit of excluding farm workers from basic worker-rights legislation. This year, for example, the Virginia General Assembly passed a host of new worker-rights bills, including a much-needed increase to the state’s minimum wage. But once again, farmworkers were left out.

Not only did legislators keep the state’s shameful law excluding Virginia farmworkers from the minimum wage, they created a new law excluding agricultural “guest workers” from the minimum wage. Regrettably, Gov. Ralph Northam passed up a historic opportunity to correct this injustice. Rather than send the bill back to the General Assembly, he signed the farm worker exemptions into law.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to create new regulations that would cut farm workers’ wages. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is also trying to make it cheaper for American growers—including employers in Culpeper—to bring in “guest workers” from Mexico rather than hire workers from the local community.

And of course, federal law provides no pathway to citizenship for the roughly one-half of U.S. farm workers without immigration status. Lawmakers cannot credibly praise our nation’s farm workers as “essential” on the one hand while trying to deport them with the other.

We all hope the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be over. But the need for basic farm worker rights will not. Instead of wage cuts and exclusions, farm workers should have the same workplace rights that Virginia’s other industries enjoy.

Instead of expanding exploitative “guest worker” programs, federal lawmakers should create a path to citizenship so that these valuable members of the Culpeper community can become full members of American society.

And instead of sowing fear and division in the community, the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office should leave immigration enforcement to the feds by withdrawing from its so-called 287(g) agreement with ICE, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For these most essential of workers, it is the least we can do to say “thank you.”

Nicholas Marritz is an attorney with the Immigrant Advocacy Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit group that provides free legal help to low-income people in Virginia.

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