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Immigration Reform: The First Step in Saving Our Food System

January 08, 2014 By Anna Nassiff, Macalester College

We conclude our Macalester College environmental op-ed series with a look at how our broken immigration and food systems keep prices for bad foods cheap while exploiting immigrant agricultural workers. We hope you've enjoyed this collaboration with the college's Environmental Studies Department.

Immigration is a food issue. Go ask the two million farmworkers who put apples in your fruit bowl and lettuce in your fridge. You can also ask the massive multi-billion dollar corporations like Tyson Foods and Yum Brands who have been connected to immigrant labor exploitation. The rule of corporate giants over what we can consume, and what we can consume on a budget, is completely dependent on a hefty supply of undocumented workers who are kept from protesting miserable working conditions and impossibly low compensation by fear. Changing the way we handle immigration is a necessary step toward a fair food system and a just society.

Our malfunctioning food system is propped up on the large-scale use of undocumented farmworkers. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends project, there are currently 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. At least 53 percent of farmworkers in the United States are undocumented, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and since undocumented immigration is so underreported, some estimate the actual number is around 80 percent. Without secure legal status, immigrants on farms have limited rights and trouble accessing resources that could protect them from abusive practices and appallingly low wages. The National Farm Worker Ministry found that some areas of the agricultural sector pay their workers as little as $6.76 an hour to a high of just $8 after six years on the job.


“Agricultural work is consistently ranked among the top three most hazardous jobs in the United States,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Demanding physical labor, pesticide exposure and dangerous equipment put farm and agricultural workers at great risk for “respiratory and dermatological illnesses; dehydration, heat stroke and heat illness; and chronic muscular/skeletal pain.”

Injustice isn’t limited to the fields. Here in Minnesota, meatpacking industries also benefit from immigrant workers. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, when adjusted for inflation, real wages for meatpacking workers dropped 45 percent between 1980 and 2007. This decrease of pay and the disappearance of meat workers’ unionization directly coincide with the increase in immigrant labor, much of it undocumented. Tyson Foods Inc., the foremost meat processing corporation in the U.S., was infamously found employing large numbers of undocumented immigrants.

A 2009 report from Duke University’s Center on Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness found that four companies alone (National Beef Packing Co., Tyson Foods, JB Swift, and Cargill Meat Solutions Corp.) control over 75 percent of the market. This thriving $100-billion-a-year industry, with a significant node in Minnesota itself, is where food injustice takes one of its harshest tolls.

Affordable food should be fair food, but it isn’t right now. In the short term, food justice will come with a price tag, but it’s a price worth paying until we reach a long-term solution. The answer to affordable food that doesn’t exploit immigrant labor is complex; it involves better immigration policy, wrestling economic power from a few individual food companies, and smarter farm policy.

Progressive organizations like Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, Farmworker Justice, National Center for Farmworker Health, and Coalition of Immokalee Workers are already hot on the tracks of food worker justice, and what they accomplish will have enormous impacts on our food system.

This is not just a call to the self-proclaimed foodies, locavores, and food justice activists, but it is a reminder that we all have a stake in our food system and the broken immigration processes it so heavily leans on. We can start by urging the U.S. House to act on bi-partisan immigration reform policy, which has already passed the U.S. Senate. Locally, we can reach out to organizations working on behalf of food processing and other agricultural workers. As a consumer, seek the fair options in your grocery store. The injustice of our food industry, and those it exploits, concerns us all.

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  • David Schmidt says:

    January 18, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Perhaps this is one issue where the giant corporations are heavily influencing the Democrats in Congress in so far as the Democrats have not been serious about locking down the US borders and pushing illegal immigrants out of the country. As for Corporate interests-perhaps going after the largest companies under the Teddy Roosevelt anti-trust method may be a good idea.

    That being said, farming has always consisted of difficult and unskilled and low paid labor. If the government [particularly Federal] increases the cost of labor from its Ivory Tower directly through Labor control laws [rather than through solving the illegal immigration issue], then of course there will be economic pressures exerted elsewhere. These might mean increase costs in food to the consumer or substitution of better ingredients by cheaper ingredients or increased farm mechanization. It seems there are two ways to obtain the “economic justice” MN2020 desires: 1) government dictate from on high (but this will only bend the market with undesirable side effects to be later corrected by the very do-gooders who created them), or 2) by locking down the borders and pushing illegal immigrants out of the country.