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Immigrant farm workers deemed ‘essential,’ but feel expendable



  • The unauthorized immigrants who plow, pick, and harvest America’s crops have been deemed “essential workers” during the coronavirus pandemic, but say they still feel vulnerable.
  • One worker, Carmelita, told Business Insider Today she’s been working illegally in the country for 13 years picking strawberries, and doesn’t feel very “essential.”
  • These workers weren’t eligible for most of the federal assistance given to Americans amid the crisis, and Carmelita said she fears what could happen if she gets sick.
  • She also said a lack of education among her colleagues has contributed to misinformation — some workers think they can’t catch the coronavirus because they eat spicy food.
  • But she said she’s proud of her work, and hopes President Donald Trump will one day make it easier for workers like her to stay in the country legally.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.

The roughly 2.4 million farm workers who plant and harvest America’s produce have been deemed “essential workers” during the coronavirus crisis, which has plunged the economy into uncertainty and raised fears about food shortages.

But the “essential worker” label poses a dilemma for roughly half of those farm workers, whose work is both desperately needed and illegal.

Carmelita is one of more than 1 million unauthorized immigrants who plow, pick, and harvest the country’s fields, often for long hours and low wages, and in grueling conditions. She spends 12 hours each day picking strawberries in Southern California, and told Business Insider Today she’s been working illegally in the country for 13 years.

“I don’t feel ‘essential,’ as they say, because we don’t have the same privileges,” Carmelita said in Spanish.


She was referring to government programs and services available to Americans that she cannot access due to her immigration status.

Carmelita did not receive a $1,200 stimulus payments like her American counterparts, and she’s also ineligible for health insurance programs like Medicaid, which would cover the costs of her treatment if she grew sick with COVID-19.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has allocated $75 million to provide $500 cash to the state’s unauthorized immigrants, but it will only cover 150,000 people.

The fear of catching the coronavirus has made her job more difficult — especially since the social distancing measures many American workplaces have adopted don’t translate well to farm work.

migrant farmworker

Carmelita, an unauthorized immigrant who picks strawberries for 12 hours a day, says she doesn’t feel “essential.”

Business Insider Today

Carmelita said she’s struggled to convey the severity of the coronavirus pandemic to some of her coworkers, who have not been educated about the threat, and who have even fallen prey to misinformation.

“When I talk with them they say it’s not true, that they’re not scared,” she said. “Some told me nothing will happen to us Mexicans because we eat spicy food, and when we eat spicy food, the sickness will not hit us.”

Farmworker advocates have expressed concern that that lack of education could leave workers like Carmelita susceptible to a major outbreak. That would not only wreak havoc on America’s immigrant community, but it could disrupt food supply chains and cause shortages in grocery stores.

“We’re treated as essential workers right now because if we don’t do this kind of work, the United States is not going to have food in supermarkets, food to feed the nation,” Mily Treviño-Sauceda, cofounder of the farmworkers advocacy group Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, told Business Insider Today.

Still, despite everything, Carmelita said she’s proud of her work.

“We are the ones who are harvesting the products, fruits, and vegetables so they get to the table of the people who have to stay home,” she said.

migrant farmworkers

Farmworker advocates say a lack of education for the immigrants could contribute to a coronavirus outbreak.

Business Insider Today

But she longs to one day not have to worry about losing everything she’s worked for simply due to her immigration status.

She says she hopes that one day President Donald Trump will give workers like her a “blue card,” which Democrats have proposed for agricultural workers. The blue cards would provide the immigrants with a pathway to permanent, legal status in the US.

Carmelita’s sons are American citizens, but she said she hopes to one day call herself the same.

“Right now what motivates me to work so hard is to help my children get ahead so that they can have a better life than I have,” she said. “I know I can’t give them everything, but at least they can get a better education than I did, so they’ll be less likely to end up as farmworkers.”

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