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Immigration and Our Food Chain –  a Policy Primer

The fact is, immigrant farmworkers and food chain workers, documented and undocumented, are and have been essential to our ability to feed ourselves.  However, it took the Covid-19 pandemic for the last Congress and Administration to acknowledge that essentiality, albeit doing too little to protect those who risked their health and that of their loved ones to put food on our tables. 

Now, we must ensure that the essentiality of these workers and our debt to them are not forgotten. Slow Food USA calls upon Congress and the Biden/Harris Administration to:

  • Support the health, dignity, and fair treatment of our essential farmworkers and food chain workers, regardless of immigration status.
  • Provide undocumented immigrant farmworkers and food chain workers with a path to citizenship for themselves and their families. 


In addition to this guide, please review this policy primer from Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.


Migrant Milestones – Past


Mexican Farm Labor Agreement

The U.S. food chain workforce has long been composed significantly of foreign workers.  It began when Mexico and the U.S., on August 4, 1942, signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, starting what was known as the Bracero Program (bracero is Spanish for “one who works using his arms”) 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, at which time there was a significant legalization of Braceros.


Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 introduced an agricultural guestworker program, the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, under which U.S. agricultural employers could legally apply for and hire seasonal foreign farmworkers.  H-2A farmworkers have become an increasing percentage of hired foreign farmworkers. For many years, the number of H-2A hired farmworkers was about 30,000. Now, that number is more than 200,000 annually. 


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. 


Migrant Milestones – Future


Today, there are about two million hired farmworkers, about 200,000 of whom have temporary H-2A visas.  About half are undocumented.  Undocumented food chain workers, in food processing, distribution, preparation, and serving, number more than about 800,000.  In fact, few undocumented foreign workers are migrant workers, they are “settled,” meaning they, with their families, reside permanently in U.S. communities, part of our social fabric and local economies.   

While undocumented immigrant farmworkers and food chain workers, primarily persons of color, work long and hard to put food on our tables, they and their families often suffer hunger and diet-related disease, generally lack health insurance, are excepted from federal overtime pay rules, and are not eligible for federal nutrition and medical assistance.  

The Biden/Harris Administration has vowed to “Build Back Better,” undoing the anti-immigrant policies of the prior Administration, and Congress has proposed legislation that would support the health, dignity, and fair treatment of our essential farm and food chain workers and provide undocumented immigrant farm and food chain workers with a path to citizenship. 


U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 – S.348 – Sen. Menendez (D-NJ)/H.R.1177 – Rep. Sanchez (D-CA)

This bill would reverse many of the immigration-related executive actions of the last Administration, provide a path to legal residence and eventual citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants, including DACA and Temporary Protected Status beneficiaries, essential workers in a non-immigrant status, and agricultural laborers; recreate the V visa program to allow families to await immigrant visa approval together in the US; end country-specific visa annual maximums; and grant immediate relative status to spouses and children of green card holders.


Citizenship for Essential Workers Act – S.747 – Sen. Padilla (D-CA)

The bill would create a pathway to citizenship for more than five million undocumented workers deemed essential during the Covid-19 pandemic who risked their lives and the lives of their families to ensure that there was food on our tables and to provide other essential services.


Farm Workforce Modernization Act – H.R.1603 – Rep. Lofgren (D-CA) 

This bill, which was passed in the House of Representatives and referred to the Senate, would expand the H2-A program and provide a path to legal status and eventual residence for agricultural workers.


A bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide increased labor law protections for agricultural workers – H.R.3194 – Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ)

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