How do you define essential? For me, it is essential that I eat healthy — lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those leafy greens that make a mighty salad. If I don’t, my cardiologist says, my heart is gonna kill me.
The industry that supplies my heart-healthy diet says its cross-border farmworkers are a life or death proposition for them, too. Without enough imported hands in the fields and orchards, industry voices say, the fresh produce available to Americans will shrink and food prices will rise. Thus, the thousands of farmworkers who cross daily between Mexico and the Yuma County, Arizona fields are “essential,” officially, legally, specifically “essential.”
President Ronald Reagan recognized the value of farmworkers in 1986 when he signed into law the H-2A visa program, designed to guarantee Big Farmers they would have available all the essential foreign guest-workers they needed.
Over the past 14 years, that number of imported workers essential to the farm industry, has grown by 400%.
When COVID-19 struck, President Donald Trump essentially closed America’s borders in the name of national security. He was responding to an historic crisis of public health. But he made an exception. He not only opened the Mexican-American border to farmworkers with H-2A visas, he brought in seven percent more of them in the Plague Year of 2020 than had come the year before. Because they were “essential.”
Which has a value of — what?
Does being an essential worker, feeding a hungry nation, get you a convenient commute? Safe working conditions? Decent workplace facilities? A social safety net?
Not when your job, insanely hard to get to, filled with COVID-related dangers in a perpetual pandemic hotspot, is truly essential to you, to your family, to their food, shelter and survival. In the free market of competitive needs, a farmworker’s paycheck is more essential to them than they are to the people who pay them This makes agricultural work often a hard bargain.
Esther Honig is an independent journalist who reports from Mexico and from her home in Colorado. She works in print and audio to tell stories about agriculture, US immigration policy and rural issues. She is a 2021 fellow for the UC Berkeley–11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship. Her “The Story Behind Your Salad,” was reported for The Nation in large part thanks to funding from FERN, The Food and Environment Reporting Network.