Migrant farm laborers with Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa line up for a meal in the company living quarters on April 28, 2020 in King City, California.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Workers on temporary work visas are subject to abuse and wage theft at the hands of their employers.
As a DACA recipient, I’m all too familiar with living under the threat of anti-immigrant litigation.
The Senate must pass a package to make permanent immigration status for all a reality.
Mari Perales Sánchez is senior policy manager and Elizabeth Memorial Advocate for Migrant Worker Women at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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I immigrated to the US to reunite with my family when I was 8, so I have lived most of my life as an undocumented woman. Growing up here in America, I watched my relatives and other immigrant community members work under hazardous conditions with few protections. Their drive and sacrifices have always played a motivating role in my passion for social justice.
Undocumented immigrants like myself were unnerved but not defeated by the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling against including a pathway to citizenship in the new budget reconciliation bill. Right now, the world is watching as lawmakers such as Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey prepare alternative pathways and continue to fight for a pathway to citizenship and permanent legal status for millions of immigrants. If an immigration package passes, this legislation will fundamentally improve the livelihoods of millions of members of my community.
As an advocate and directly impacted person who understands the many barriers removed by being able to access a permanent immigration status, I must demand that this bill covers as many members of my community as possible – including the thousands of essential migrant workers who come to the US on temporary visas.
Without additional protections, many essential migrant workers are being exploited by employers
In 2017, I joined my alma mater in suing the Trump administration for rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. While the Supreme Court sided with us and reinstated the program for thousands of immigrants, temporary status is far from enough. The same is true for the migrant workers on H-2 visas who work as farmworkers, landscapers, seafood processors, and in construction. In my role managing the policy area and gender equity projects at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a binational migrant workers organization, I see how H-2 workers are exposed to severe and abusive conditions every day: from extortion, coercion, and wage theft to sexual harassment and discrimination.
For this group of essential workers, a pathway to citizenship would provide an urgently needed arm of defense in the many structurally flawed labor migration programs where a worker’s immigration status and employment are tied to a single employer, creating a deep power-imbalance between employer and worker.
During the pandemic, health and safety violations skyrocketed in seafood processing plants across the country where migrant workers worked, while the few existing legal protections ceased to be enforced. When migrant workers speak out, their employers retaliate and workers risk being fired and deported to their country of origin. I saw this happen to two Louisiana H-2B crawfish workers from Mexico, Maribel and Reyna, whose employer fired them after they sought medical treatment for COVID-19. They returned to Mexico as a result.
Congress must pass an inclusive immigration package
But a pathway to permanent immigration status for essential H-2 migrant workers means more than improved labor standards. Most migrant workers are practically barred from migrating with their families and children – regardless of how many years they have been coming to the US – causing unconscionable, seasons-long separations between families each year.
Last spring I had an emotional conversation with a Mexican woman who is an H-2B crab picker in Maryland and the bread-winner in her family. She was terrified she would never see her children again if she caught COVID-19, or that she would infect her family if she traveled back. A dignified immigration solution, like the one we advocate for, would enable migrant workers like her to migrate with their loved ones and as part of families – preventing their separation.
Adversaries may side with the parliamentarian, but they are overlooking the fact that immigrant and migrant communities will not give up. Last summer, after months of mobilization, we watched a conservative Supreme Court deliver a positive DACA decision when many presumed the worst. Now, a year later, due to extensive organizing, Senate leadership is exhausting as many avenues as possible, including returning to the parliamentarian with alternative immigration proposals.
As a DACA recipient, I’m all too familiar with the alternative: living in the limbo of temporary status at best, or under the threat of anti-immigrant litigation and at the mercy of the courts at worst. We cannot tolerate this option for H-2 workers and other essential workers like those in my family. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must include them in the immigration bills.
We have done our part: Immigrants’ rights activists, leaders, and allies have ensured that an inclusive pathway to citizenship is on the table. Now it’s time for our policymakers to stop at nothing to deliver on their promises, including a permanent immigration status for all.