COMMENTARY: The agricultural immigrant conundrum in Europe and the U.S.

April 2, 2020 /

By Profe. Gonzalo Santos

The vital, indispensable, highly valuable role “guest” foreign farm workers play in the food supply of Europe has now become evident, demonstrating that their customary low status, criminalization, and stigmatization is entirely a social construction, artificially imposed on these hard workers so as to super-exploit them, keep them from asserting their labor rights, and
discard them as a cheap, flexible, disposable “factor of production.”

This coming food crisis in Europe due to to the blockage of temporary migrant worker flows is but a harbinger of what is about to happen in the United States, which has steadfast refused to decriminalize, fully legalize and protect, and re-valorize this vital immigrant labor force. But
the pandemic will now force this country to confront reality. Thus far, though, Congress has refused to act – it has for decades – to approve any legislation extending full status and relief to farmworkers and other immigrant-dense industries. Currently, the huge $2 trillion emergency package just enacted excludes from relief all undocumented immigrant workers, even those who – like most farmworkers – have been paying taxes for years using the so-called Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).

Fact check: 50 percent of undocumented immigrant households filing tax returns using an ITIN. In 2015, they paid $23.6 billion in federal income taxes. That doesn’t even include workers who paid taxes with fake Social Security numbers. Neither group is eligible to receive Social Security & Medicare benefits, essentially subsidizing them. They’ve also paid every year – with or without ITINs – over $11 billion in state and local taxes – in 2018, $6.9 billion in sales & excise taxes, $3.6 billion in property taxes, and about $1.1 billion in state personal income taxes.

Denying emergency household federal relief is the latest, cruel and callous way this country is telling the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants, now disproportionately working hard to help with this pandemic, that they are not wanted, not welcome despite their immense contributions, and should leave! And yet, the harvest season is about to commence, the year-round dairies & canneries need to continue to produce food, the hospitals, supermarkets, and other essential places still require janitorial support, etc.

If they leave, who is going to do all the essential work to feed &
protect the nation?

The Mexican government, as well as the other governments with large undocumented diasporas in the U.S., ever obsequious and pliable to the dictates from Washington, have not raised a peep over this immoral and unjustifiable exclusion of their extremely vulnerable co-nationals from the emergency relief package. Despite this direct attack on the huge Mexican-born population in the U.S., half of which is undocumented, the Mexican governments is now calling on them not to return or visit Mexico, but to ”stay in place” in the U.S. during the crisis! This is being requested of them without the slightest offer of financial assistance (despite the diaspora’s
remittances to Mexico of the order of $35 billion a year), and without any commitment to launch a serious diplomatic effort to pressure the US to
include them in the relief package. On the other hand, the Trump and AMLO administrations have agreed to partially close the border to “non-essential” traffic (tourists & shopping commuters), while leaving open (a) all trade traffic, and (b) all H-2A guest workers flows!

The idea that Mexico could threaten to withhold sending the H-2A workers to help harvest the crops UNLESS Congress and Trump extend relief to ALL tax-paying immigrant household, is not even being entertained, let alone resolutely pursued by the servile Mexican government, the entire Latino political class in the US, certainly not by the agro-businesses who exploit their labor – or anybody else! Once again, they have been thrown under the proverbial bus. That is, Mexican guest workers will still be allowed to come and work on the farms, without labor rights, subject to abuse and under very unsanitary, unprotected housing conditions, after which they must go back (infected or not of the virus!); while those millions of US-resident immigrant families already working in the fields and other vital industries, but without papers, can neither receive US federal assistance to survive during this crisis, nor can they expect any financial or diplomatic assistance from the Mexican government – nor are they even welcome to return to Mexico!

As they say in social network lingo, WTF!? Are people in power on both sides of the border out of their minds? What do they think is going to happen when these millions of households become infected by the virus and contaminate the rest of the population, and/or become unable to survive and overwhelm our local/state relief agencies, or stampede back to Mexico?

What part of “We Are All In This Together” don’t they understand?

Neither the European Union and its surrounding agricultural immigrant-sending region, nor the U.S. and its surrounding agricultural immigrant-
sending region can expect to successfully address the massive and urgent food production needs they now face due to the growing coronavirus pandemic, without extending full protections, relief, and social recognition to their respective immigrant agricultural labor forces. If they fail to extend these protections, relief, and social recognition, the countries in these two regions afflicted by the pandemic will soon not be able to feed their populations, adding another calamity to the many already unfolding.

Either they reverse their restrictionist and xenophobic policies, or Europe and North America will pay an even higher price than they are already bound to pay for being unprepared to confront the pandemic. They need to act decisively, and they need to act quickly, to shore up the “food front” in this “war against the virus.” And that means the receiving states have to stop restricting, criminalizing, detaining, deporting, devaluing, and stigmatizing agricultural migrant workers, and the broader ethnic immigrant communities in which they are embedded; and begin in earnest to welcome, protect, and extend all social and labor rights to
these vital working communities, as we all confront and defeat the pandemic. The choice is ours!