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Latino lawmakers call for farmworkers to be shielded from deportation during pandemic

Coronavirus puts food supply workers at risk
Coronavirus puts food supply workers at risk 02:09

Latino lawmakers on Wednesday asked Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to include protections for the nation's farmworkers in the next coronavirus relief package, urging them to grant agricultural laborers additional economic support, as well as a temporary reprieve from deportation for those without legal status.

As workers who are critical to the nationwide response to the deadly pandemic, which has killed more than 26,000 people in the U.S., undocumented farmworkers should be shielded from immigration enforcement until Congress places them on a pathway towards legalizing their status, 36 lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said in a letter to the top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 50% of the nation's farmworkers are undocumented. Estimates by advocacy groups place that number higher, closer to 75%. Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated agricultural workers as part of the nation's "essential critical infrastructure" workforce. President Trump said the workers have a "special responsibility" to continue their "normal work schedule."

"During this crisis, our frontline farmworkers are laboring every day to put food on America's dinner table and maintain the world food supply," 36 Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. "As this virus threatens the resiliency of our food supply chains, it has never been more important to ensure the well-being of our agricultural producers and workforce."

While Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, announced last month it would focus on apprehending and deporting undocumented immigrants who pose a threat to the public until the national health crisis abates, those in the U.S. without a legal status and their advocates across the country have expressed concern about continued immigration enforcement during a pandemic that has hit immigrant communities particularly hard. 

Virus Outbreak California Farmers
Farmworkers keep their distance from each other as they work at a winery in Clarksburg, California, on March 24, 2020. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Some undocumented immigrants also fear accessing medical treatment and social services during the public health crisis, according to more than a dozen declarations by doctors, local officials and community workers who called on the Supreme Court to reconsider a decision allowing the Trump administration to implement a "public charge" wealth test for green card and visa applicants.

In the motion, filed Monday, Dr. Pedro Moreno, a public health official in California's Salinas Valley, said immigrant farmworkers there are afraid that accessing local and federal medical and nutrition programs could have "negative immigration consequences." Moreno has told workers with possible symptoms of coronavirus to stay home, but they've told him they can't stop working. "They have no other income or resources, and their families will otherwise go hungry," Moreno wrote in his declaration to the Supreme Court.

Several pushes to place U.S. agricultural workers on a pathway to U.S. citizenship or a permanent legal status have failed over the years. Late last year, with broad support among Democrats and more than 30 Republican votes, the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would offer legal status to hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers. Until that bill becomes law, the Latino lawmakers on Tuesday said farmworkers should be offered legal protections from deportation.

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulates package signed into law last month included economic relief to millions of Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, offered loans to small businesses, provided economic support to the strained public health sector and allocated $500 billion in loans for big corporations, including the battered airline industry.

But most undocumented immigrants, even the ones who pay taxes, will not receive relief checks under the CARES Act. Many in certain states also can't apply for unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs.

In their letter on Tuesday, the Latino lawmakers led by California Congressmen Jim Costa and Salud Carbajal said Congress needs to allocate more funds to farms in future coronavirus relief measures so they can be used to offer agricultural workers sick pay, family leave and bonuses that reward them for their work during the pandemic. Additional funds, the lawmakers said, should also be used to better inform farmworkers about social distancing and hygiene practices while in the field, as well as in employer provided housing and transportation services. 

The next relief package should also direct federally funded nutrition programs to dedicate some of their work to helping farmworkers and their families, as well as provide more funding to a Department of Health and Human Services program that offers social services to children of low-income farmworkers, the lawmakers said in their letter. Lastly, the caucus urged congressional leaders to include more support for health centers in rural immigrant communities. 

"Farmworkers need our support," the lawmakers wrote. "They should not live in fear."

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