John Lantigua: Justice for Florida’s farmworkers — the time has arrived
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“People are being told to stay at home, but you can’t stay at home without food to eat."

On April 1, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic. He added a list of jobs considered essential to combating the crisis, granting those workers permission to be on the roads and in workplaces.

Prominent on that list were farmworkers, who plant and harvest crops, and others who help that food reach the tables of Floridians. The irony is that the majority of farmworkers in Florida are undocumented. Until the virus reached the state, certain politicians were spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric and calling for their deportation. Farmworkers were at constant risk of being detained and expelled.

Overnight, farmworkers went from being deportable to irreplaceable for the state and the nation. That irony is not lost on Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), the largest group of food producers in Florida.

Carlton says the members of the FFVA have always known undocumented workers were absolutely necessary to our economy. Growers have unsuccessfully tried to find U.S. citizens willing to do that backbreaking, often sweltering, migrant work for some reasonable wage that will keep U.S. food costs from skyrocketing.

“You just can’t find them,” Carlton says. “They don’t exist.”

Growers have pressed for many years for federal legislation that would provide their undocumented workers legal status. But they have been up against vitriolic, anti-immigrant rhetoric from some politicians who won’t move the legislation — even while they and their families gladly eat the food undocumented farmworkers provide.

Just how much average Americans depend on undocumented farmworkers has never been clearer, says Antonio Tovar, executive director of the 10,000-member Florida Farmworker Association.

“People are being told to stay at home, but you can’t stay at home without food to eat,” he said. ”Farmworkers are feeding everyone and taking risks to do so and are not getting the recognition they deserve.”

The risks involve exposure to COVID-19 in jobs where the advised precautions, like social distancing, can be difficult.

Lately, undocumented farmworkers are getting some important recognition from federal and state leaders. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has created a letter for them, and other workers considered essential, that they can carry wherever they go. That includes dairy, poultry and seafood workers, many of whom are undocumented. It states that the bearer is “a critical infrastructure industry worker,” exempt from shelter-in-place orders and curfews. How ironic is it that our government officials can give farmworkers “essential papers” to continue to provide the labor needed to feed people across our country, but refuse to provide a pathway to citizenship or even basic coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment?

“We ask that you allow this individual to continue with his or her job in the interest of providing essential food deliveries … and promoting public health,” the letter states.

That is for the moment, but what happens when the pandemic ends? Will the government vacate those letters and tell farmworkers that they are again fair game for immigration agents? Will Gov. DeSantis and Florida’s elected leaders say to these essential workers, “We used you when we really needed you, but now you must go back to living in fear.” Many undocumented farmworkers have lived and worked in Florida for many years, even decades — contributing positively to our communities and our economy — but always looking over their shoulders.

As our state and federal leaders continue to find ways to help people deal with the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on our collective financial and health safety, it is imperative that any relief bills include immigrants and farmworkers. Right now, immigrants, including farmworkers, are being left out of COVID-19 relief bills. This includes treatment, testing, cash rebates, and other forms of relief being offered to individuals across the country.

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, and neither should our elected officials. Our officials must fix its failure to include millions of people in testing and relief, including farmworkers. Any bills, policies or executive orders must encompass everyone — regardless of immigration or citizenship status — and be passed as swiftly as possible.

Tovar was also hopeful, “For so long the discourse has been about our workers taking away jobs from Americans which just isn’t true,” he says. “We hope people give more attention to what farmworkers are doing for the country and that public opinion on this issue is starting to change.”


John Lantigua is a staff investigator at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

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