header icons

Immigration, the Invisible Hand of Agribusiness, and Farm Workers

Mark Muller is the Food and Community Fellows Program of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

 About a year ago, Don Lassus reviewed the book Tomatoland in the Houston Catholic Worker. This article takes the perspective of the campaign to address the mistreatment of the agricultural workers in Immokalee, Florida, in the larger context of immigration reform.

The calls for immigration reform by the Obama Administration and members of Congress differ largely in their emphasis. Opinions to the right emphasize border security and penalizing undocumented immigrants, while opinions to the left favor paths to citizenship and recognizing the economic benefits of immigration. Any reforms that emerge will likely have components of all of these things.

But I suspect that whatever happens with immigration policy, it will have little impact on the flow of immigrants working for little money and often in deplorable conditions in U.S. farm fields. Some components of our economy are simply too consequential for reform.

A delegation of food justice leaders will be headed down to Immokalee, Fla., this week to support the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and end the exploitation of workers in Florida’s tomato fields. CIW has enjoyed remarkable success in gaining recognition for the rights of farmworkers, but very little of that success is due to government recognition of the atrocities that have occurred in farm fields and the policies that have contributed to that exploitation. Instead CIW has had to rely on compelling the buyers of Florida tomatoes, companies such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Trader Joe’s, to sign an agreement to purchase tomatoes grown with less exploitative labor practices.

Perhaps we need to come to the realization that incremental policy reform just does not work in the shadow of agribusiness power. The exploitation of farm labor has been recognized for decades, but federal labor policy has remained largely untouched. Financial speculation has had a devastating impact on food security, but effective reforms such as a financial transaction tax have gone nowhere. And the farm bill remains largely a vehicle for grain traders and processors to maintain an abundant supply of low-priced farm commodities.

So when it comes to reforming the critical inputs of agribusiness — cheap farm commodities, cheap labor and free-flowing capital — don’t tread lightly. Changes in policy will eventually happen, but they require a big and compelling vision. When considering immigration reform, we should take a lesson from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and not settle for baby steps. Exploited immigrant labor must become a thing of the past.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, March-April 2013