WASHINGTON (November 7, 2003) -- Federal legislation that would grant important legal protections to many undocumented migrant farm workers is an improvement over their "current deplorable situation," according to chairmen of two United States Conference of Catholic Bishops committees who offered their support for the pending bill.
The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act represents "on balance, a positive improvement upon the current deplorable situation of migrant farm workers, many of whom are unable to organize and/or bargain with their employers," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington and Coadjutor Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando told Members of Congress in a letter released today.
Cardinal McCarrick is the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Domestic Policy Committee; Bishop Wenski chairs the USCCB Migration Committee.
They specifically praised the legalized adjustment provisions of the legislation, which would allow many previously undocumented farm workers to qualify for legal permanent residency after working in agriculture for a specified amount of time.
"It is our view that the earned adjustment provisions, a central feature of the legislation, would enable many undocumented workers 'come out of the shadows' and assert their basic rights in the work place, stabilizing the work force and creating an environment in the future which will benefit both foreign and U.S. farm workers."
The legislation, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), and in the House by Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Chris Cannon (R-UT), reflects a compromise between farm worker representatives and agricultural employers negotiated over the past few years.
"For decades we have encouraged workable alternatives to the unjust status quo, which hurts both workers and employers and diminishes us as a nation," Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Wenski wrote. "We are pleased that representatives of farm workers and agricultural employers have found common ground in this legislation."
The prelates also stated that the work on behalf of farm workers is not finished, citing the need for a reexamination of wage levels for workers and more resources for farm worker housing. "Enactment of this legislation should not end Congress's obligation to take steps to improve the plight of farm workers in the United States," they wrote.
"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."
A full text of the letter follows.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E. Washington, DC 20017-1194 (202)541-3100Fax (202)541-3166
November 7, 2003
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 non-existent. 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