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Undocumented agricultural workers urge Congress for protection amid historic heat

Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old undocumented agricultural worker from Guatemala, was working in an Oregon tree nursery on June 26 when he died during record heat waves traveling the region.

“He dreamed of starting a family with his wife, Maria, who is now in Guatemala. … He was here undocumented for only two months, trying to save money to start fertility treatment,” said Reyna Lopez , the executive director of PCUN, a farmers’ union in Oregon.

As temperatures hit 115 degrees in the Pacific Northwest in late June, a spotlight was once again thrown on the brutal and sometimes life-threatening conditions. some farm workers in America face.

Perez’s death has raised urgency for undocumented agricultural workers to obtain legal immigration status, which advocates say is necessary to fight for basic worker protection.

Between 2000 and 2010, agricultural workers were 35 times more likely to die from heat-related diseases than workers in other industries, according to research published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Often farm workers who lack proper documentation suppress concerns about hazardous working conditions, including extreme heat, because of fear of deportation or job loss, said Roxana Chicas, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Nursing who spoke with reporters during a survey. called last week to draw attention to the worrying conditions of agricultural workers.

Leticia, an undocumented agricultural worker in Washington and a mother of four whose last name was not disclosed for security reasons, told reporters during the call on Thursday that she was denied shade or access to water even at 115 degrees.

“I’m afraid I won’t come home to my husband and kids,” she said.

On Tuesday, Governor Kate Brown ordered Oregon Occupational Safety and Health to write emergency regulations requiring employers to provide shade, rest and fresh water to workers during high temperatures. And in Washington, a new law was passed in May that allows state farm workers to receive overpayments and file complaints against employers without retaliation.

However, there are no federal emergency heat standards that protect agricultural workers from weather events.

“We need our federal government to market and chew gum at the same time,” Lopez said of protecting workers while giving them a path to legal status. “We need strict standards to protect the workers who feed America.”

According to a report published by the political organization, about 73% of agricultural workers are immigrants and about half of them are undocumented.

Advocates of agricultural workers have redoubled their pressure on Congress in recent weeks in the Agricultural Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, which would give agricultural workers a path to earn legal status if they continue to work in agriculture. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act states that most agricultural immigrants hold an H-2A visa, which is temporary and dependent on employer patronage.

The bill was passed with the support of bipartisan units by the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, pending a hearing.

If the president passed it and signed it, the law would provide stability and bargaining power to immigrants vulnerable to abuse, Deputy Zoe Lofgren, D-California, who wrote the law.

“It’s not everything everyone wanted, but it’s something we can all support,” he added, referring to near-universal support from both Democrats and some Republicans, including R-Idaho Senator Mike Frog.

Even with some support from the other side of the aisle, Democrats are considering including some immigration provisions in a budget reconciliation bill expected later this year. This route can allow these rules to be adopted without the need for GOP votes.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would provide certified workers with status to people who do at least 180 days of agricultural work within two years. One way an agricultural worker can apply for a green card is by proving that he or she has worked in agriculture for a total of 10 years, including four years of certified worker status.

“If you’re undocumented this limits your ability to speak and I want everyone to know the truth about what’s happening and that we’re too scared to talk in the workplace,” Leticia said. “Giving agricultural workers a path to citizenship allows them to vote on the injustices they face.”

The law would require farms to maintain a heat illness prevention plan that includes worker training, access to water, shade, regular breaks and emergency response protocols.

President Joe Biden backed the legislation, mentioning it Friday at a naturalization ceremony for new citizens, saying he thought “there was a way” [toward citizenship] for agricultural workers who put food on our tables here, but who are not citizens. “

MaryAlice Parks of ABC News contributed to this report.

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