When Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1 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 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 is not lost on Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, 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, 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 federal legislation that would provide their undocumented workers legal status. But they have been up against anti-immigrant rhetoric from some politicians who won’t move 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.”
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. 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?
What happens when the pandemic ends? Will the government vacate those letters and tell farmworkers that they are again fair game for immigration agents?
As our state and federal leaders continue to help people deal with the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on our collective financial and health safety, it is imperative that relief bills include immigrants and farm workers. Right now, immigrants, including farm workers, are being left out.
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 farm workers. Any policies must encompass everyone--regardless of immigration or citizenship status.
John Lantigua is a staff investigator at the ACLU of Florida.