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Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic

Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic

By Miriam Jordan—April 2, 2020

Like legions of immigrant farmworkers, Nancy Silva for years has done the grueling work of picking fresh fruit that Americans savor, all the while afraid that one day she could lose her livelihood because she is in the country illegally.

But the widening coronavirus pandemic has brought an unusual kind of recognition: Her job as a field worker has been deemed by the federal government as “essential” to the country.

Ms. Silva, who has spent much of her life in the United States evading law enforcement, now carries a letter from her employer in her wallet, declaring that the Department of Homeland Security considers her “critical to the food supply chain.”

“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” said Ms. Silva, a 43-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has been working in the clementine groves south of Bakersfield, Calif.

It is an open secret that the vast majority of people who harvest America’s food are undocumented immigrants, mainly from Mexico, many of them decades-long residents of the United States. Often the parents of American-born children, they have lived for years with the cloud of deportation hanging over their households.

The “essential work” letters that many now carry are not a free pass from immigration authorities, who could still deport Ms. Silva and other undocumented field workers at any time.

But local law enforcement authorities said the letters might give immigrant workers a sense of security that they will not be arrested for violating stay-at-home orders.

“If you have people who perceive that they may be stopped and questioned or deported because of their status, under these circumstances, having that letter makes them feel comfortable,” said Eric Buschow, a captain with the sheriff’s office in Ventura County, where thousands of farmworkers labor in strawberry, lemon and avocado operations. “They can go to work. And their work is essential now.”

Read more at The New York Times.

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