Bishops' Conference Chairmen Support Farm Worker Proposal

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Bishops' Conference Chairmen Support Farm Worker Proposal


By: Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and Thomas G. Wenski of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Date: November 7, 2003

Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops "Bishops' Conference Chairmen Support Farm Worker Proposal." November 7, 2003. 〈〉 (accessed July 15, 2006).

About the Author: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is an assembly of the Catholic Church hierarchy who work together to unify, coordinate, promote, and carry on Catholic activities in the United States; to organize and conduct religious, charitable, and social welfare work at home and abroad; to aid in education; and to care for immigrants. The bishops themselves constitute the membership of the Conference and are served by a staff of more than 350 lay people, priests, and deacons.


The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJobs) was an attempt to improve border security and provide workers for agricultural employers. While farmers need great numbers of temporary workers at harvest, there is a need for the Untied States to guarantee that terrorists are not arriving with the farm workers. In 2003, legislation was introduced to establish a guest worker program that would offer protections to farm workers while ensuring border security.

Policymakers have long recognized that many agricultural employers require temporary workers to help plant and harvest their crops in season. The Bracero program that began during World War II allowed the entry of between four and five million temporary foreign agricultural workers, principally from Mexico, to fill the farm labor shortage. Since the termination of the Bracero program in 1964, some farmers have relied on illegal aliens to harvest produce each season. It has been estimated that fifty to seventy-five percent of farm workers are undocumented. As internal enforcement of immigration has increased, farms are struggling to find legal workers.

Because of the use of illegal workers to fill essential roles, lawmakers have been faced with the issue of how to balance the labor needs of the agriculture against the interest of the nation in controlling the border and upholding the law. The issue has been complicated by agribusinesses that have exploited the unskilled laborers, recognizing that their illegal status makes them vulnerable. Many undocumented workers cannot speak English and are unaware of even their most basic rights under U.S. labor laws. Because they are in the country illegally, they fear taking action against exploitative labor practices.

In the face of these problems, Congress has sought ways to control illegal immigration yet provide an agricultural workforce. The policy options fall into two categories: law enforcement and a tightly regulated influx of foreign farm labor. An enforcement-only policy will not work because the United States has 7,458 miles of land border and 88,600 miles of tidal shoreline. AgJobs proposes to let about 500,000 undocumented agricultural workers who have performed 100 hours of agricultural work in eighteen months to become legal residents. Most of the farm workers in the United States are Mexican nationals who are Catholic. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an organization that has immigrant protection as part of its mandate, has taken a range of actions to support Catholic immigrants. In 2003, the Conference voiced support for AgJobs.


November 7, 2003

Dear Senator/Representative:

We write on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in general support of the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 (S. 1645, HR 3142). As introduced, the bipartisan measure would provide a path to permanent residency and citizenship for a number of undocumented farm workers. It also would make changes to the current H-2A nonimmigrant agricultural worker program. While we understand that there may be individual provisions within the bill that some may disagree with, we believe that it is a delicately balanced bill which deserves your support.

As you may know, the U.S. Catholic bishops have long advocated for the rights of farm workers, both workers residing in the United States and migrant workers from Mexico and other nations who toil in our agricultural fields.

Farm workers perform one of the most dangerous jobs in our nation, working long hours in difficult conditions. At the same time, by picking vegetables, fruits, and other crops all across our nation, their labor is among the most important to the welfare of the people of our nation.

Farm workers, especially those who are undocumented, are among the most vulnerable of workers in the United States. This is so, in part, because many of our nation's labor laws do not apply to their employment. Moreover, enforcement of their rights is often inadequate or nonexistent. Undocumented migrant workers, who make up a significant percentage of the farm worker labor force, are even more susceptible to abuse and exploitation because of their irregular status.

For decades we have encouraged workable alternatives to the unjust status quo, which hurts both workers and employers and diminishes us as a nation. We are pleased that representatives of farm workers and agricultural employers have found common ground in this legislation.

As introduced, S. 1645 and HR 3142 represent, on balance, a positive improvement upon the current deplorable situation of migrant farm workers, many of whom are unable to organize or bargain with their employers. It is our view that the earned adjustment provisions, a central feature of the legislation, will enable many undocumented workers to "come out of the shadows" and assert their basic rights in the work place, creating an environment in the future which will benefit both foreign and U.S. farm workers.

Enactment of this legislation should not end Congress' obligation to take steps to improve the plight of farm workers in the United States. We note that S. 1645 and HR 3142 would freeze adverse effect wage levels for three years and relieve employers of the obligation to provide housing to workers, instead giving them the option, under certain circumstances, of providing a housing allowance to workers. It also would streamline the process for recruiting U.S. agricultural workers and for gaining government approval to hire foreign agricultural workers when shortages occur.

We urge Congress to examine these and other important areas more thoroughly in the near future to ensure that farm workers and their families are better able to support themselves in dignity. For example, we support increases in funding for low-income housing targeted at migrant workers so that decent and affordable housing is available in areas in which farm workers live and work. We also urge, consistent with provisions in the legislation, a reexamination of wage rate levels in the H-2A program so as to ensure that H-2A farm workers and their families receive a living wage and that U.S. workers are not adversely impacted by wage rates in the program.

In addition, we urge the appropriation of additional resources to enforce the U.S. worker recruitment requirements and worker protections in the program. Because of the many abuses which have occurred in past U.S. temporary worker programs, such as the Bracero program, the Catholic bishops' conference has been deeply skeptical of these programs. Appropriate enforcement of worker protections is essential to guarantee that future abuses in the H-2A program do not occur.

We welcome the efforts of those who negotiated this proposed legislation and we understand that many difficult choices had to be made in order to carefully construct this agreement between employers and workers. This legislation represents an important first step in ensuring that migrant farm workers fully enjoy the benefits of their labor in the future, eventually as legal permanent residents, and, if they so choose, U.S. citizens. We also believe enactment of this legislation would help in reexamining our nation's immigration laws and extending protection of the law to all undocumented workers in our midst.

We urge the swift enactment of this important measure as introduced. Substantial changes in the legislation that would adversely impact farm workers would require us to reevaluate our support.

As pastors, we are convinced that it is imperative to support this legislation as introduced. To take no action at this time could assign hundreds of thousands of farm workers in this nation to a permanent underclass, with no basic rights and no ability to live in dignity.

His Eminence Theodore Cardinal McCarrick
Archbishop of Washington
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee

Coadjutor Bishop of Orlando
Most Reverend Thomas G. Wenski
Chairman, Committee on Migration


A number of immigration reform bills have been proposed to halt illegal immigration and the threat that such immigration poses to national security. Most of these bills do not include a guest worker program. AgJobs considers the unique needs of American agriculture while improving the quality of life for farm workers. It has gotten support from both the American Farm Bureau Federation and advocates for undocumented workers. It has not passed Congress as of mid-2006.

Despite bipartisan support in Congress, AgJobs appears unlikely to be approved by Congress. Some opponents of the bill argue that AgJobs would enable undocumented workers to jump ahead of the line of people who are seeking visas legally. Other opponents contend that it would provide a captive work force for agricultural interests. Granting amnesty to cater to a specific industry is also seen as making a mockery of efforts to halt illegal immigration.



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Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.

Mitchell, Don. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.