Questions Farm Workers Have for Bernie Sanders

Farm workers harvesting yellow bell peppers near Gilroy, California. Crews like this may include illegal immigrant workers as
Farm workers harvesting yellow bell peppers near Gilroy, California. Crews like this may include illegal immigrant workers as well as members of the United Farm Workers Union founded by Cesar Chavez.

There is more to Bernie Sanders' record on immigration than what was revealed during his debate exchange with Hillary Clinton last week in Wisconsin. He has made invaluable contributions to the presidential debate, championing issues such as income inequality and economic unfairness that the United Farm Workers embraces. But the UFW has also been intimately involved championing badly needed reform for immigrants, especially farm workers, over the last 16 years. Sen. Sanders has had a contradictory record on immigration.

We came close to winning comprehensive immigration reform when a bipartisan bill by Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain nearly passed the Senate in 2007. That measure, which would have granted legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, also included AgJobs, negotiated by the UFW and major grower associations. AgJobs would have let undocumented farm workers earn the right to permanently stay in this country by continuing to work in agriculture after passing criminal background and national security checks.

The 2007 comprehensive bill had flaws, including big expenditures on border enforcement and a wall. There were too few guarantees to protect guest workers in new industries, although the bill boosted safeguards for guest workers in agriculture.

The UFW had to make hard and painful choices during negotiations with historic adversaries -- the growers -- in exchange for legal standing freeing the undocumented from what makes them so vulnerable to abuse. If that proposal--which President George W. Bush pledged to sign -- had passed in 2007, would there still be 11 million undocumented immigrants living today in fear and constantly subjected to mistreatment? There would not be. Would Donald Trump and most Republican presidential candidates be appealing today to bigotry and rancor by scapegoating immigrants? Maybe, but he would have to deal with as many as a million new voters. The new president will also have to make painful choices, even as the Latino and immigrant vote, and the immigrant rights movement gain strength.

Sen. Sanders voted against the Kennedy-McCain bill and led the push for amendments that killed the measure because he opposed the conditions pushed by business interests for guest workers, he said during the Feb. 11 debate.

But Sen. Sanders' opposition to abusive guest worker programs didn't extend to a bill he cosponsored in 2011, to allow agricultural guest workers into his home state's largest farm sector -- Vermont's dairy industry. The federal H2A guest worker program only applies to seasonal farm industries; dairies offer year-round employment so they are excluded. But S. 852, cosponsored by Sen. Sanders, would have let dairies use H2A guest workers. There is no cap on the number of H2A farm workers and a well-documented pattern of abuse of agricultural workers in the H2A program. So the Sanders-backed measure could have let dairies replace all current domestic farm laborers with foreign guest workers -- with the same damaging impacts on wages and working conditions for both domestic and foreign guest workers Sen. Sanders decried in other industries.

Although Sen. Sanders opposes use of guest workers because of concerns over exploitation, is he willing to make an exception for guest workers in agriculture? Is this the same kind of exception that saw -- and still sees -- farm workers excluded from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act guaranteeing minimum wages and overtime pay after eight hours, and other protections.

For the last five decades I've seen the farm labor system in this country chew up and spit out farm workers, denying them the most basic protections afforded nearly all other American workers. That is wrong.

The UFW respects Sen. Sanders' record on many things. But his contradictory immigration record troubles farm workers. We hope he can address these questions during the next presidential debates and town halls.