March 12, 2013

Immigration Reform, Agriculture and Public Health

Robert Martin

Robert Martin

Director of Food System Policy

Center for a Livable Future

Migrant worker, Robstown, Tex., 1942

For the first time in almost 30 years, serious reform of U.S. immigration policies seems possible. The outcome of the Presidential election, both the dimensions of President Obama’s victory and its demographic makeup reflecting changes in the electorate, have motivated both political parties to solve this important problem.

The political parties had been polarized with one side arguing about first dealing with border security and enforcing existing laws, while the other side focused on a path to citizenship for those people already in the U.S. The Obama Administration has increased the enforcement of existing laws, including record numbers of deportations, as well as taking executive action to help the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as minors. Those actions, in essence, have helped a more bipartisan dialogue emerge.

It now appears the U.S. House of Representatives will approach reform through a series of more narrowly focused proposals that have broad support, while the Senate will develop a more comprehensive reform package. Since a bill needs to pass both the House and Senate in an identical form to be sent to the President, differences in the two approaches would be worked out in a conference committee between the House and Senate.

According to Politico, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill and politics, several House Republicans have been “reviewing immigration issues ranging from agricultural to high-tech visas, to border security and dealing with illegal immigrants already in the country.” It’s interesting that this wide range of discussions is happening. It is a good sign, but also unusual.

Significantly, a group of industrial food animal production and processing companies have formed “The Food Manufacturers Immigration Coalition” to encourage comprehensive immigration reform. As Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, a group representing large poultry processors, said recently, “To date, much of the discussion has focused on the need to retain highly skilled workers such as scientists and engineers, and the need for additional temporary agricultural workers,” Brown said, as quoted in a news release issued by the coalition. “These are important objectives, but they do not meet the needs of our industry sector. We are manufacturers, wanting a stable and permanent workforce that can help sustain the rural communities where we do business.” (Emphasis added)

In the same article, Barry Carpenter, CEO of the North American Meat Association said, “We need a comprehensive package [that includes], obviously, enforcement and a fast way to earn legal status.” He told this to Meatingplace in an interview after the hearing. “We can’t ignore the 11 million (already in the U.S.); we need to be able to [hire] them while they earn [citizenship or residency] by whatever method it is to become legal.” (Parenthesis and emphasis added)

As the debate on immigration reform has sharpened, the New York Times recently editorialized that “one important issue has, so far, received only passing mention: stronger protections for immigrant workers against exploitation and abuse.”

While the Times editorial probably didn’t have agricultural workers in mind, it is important that public health advocates and organizations interested in improving the lives of undocumented workers talk about the industrial food animal production system and its impact on workers in the context of immigration reform.

The United Farm Workers of America union is pressing for “real reform” that would give current farm workers a reasonable opportunity to earn legal status and citizenship.

According to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its landmark report almost five years ago, “Infectious agents, such as a novel avian influenza virus, that arise in an industrial farm animal production (IFAP) facility may be transmissible from person to person in a community setting… Monitoring is a basic component of strategies to protect public health from harmful effects of contamination or disease, yet industrial farm animal production monitoring is inadequate.

“In general, public health concerns associated with IFAP include heightened risks of pathogen transfers passed from animal to humans; the emergence of microbes resistant to antibiotics and antimicrobials, due in large part to widespread use of antimicrobials for non-therapeutic purposes; food borne disease; worker health concerns; and dispersed impacts on the adjacent community at large.”

On Thanksgiving Day in 1960, CBS Reports released a documentary titled, “Harvest of Shame.” In that landmark, hour-long documentary hosted by Edward R. Murrow, the plight of America’s migrant field workers was documented. Murrow, who won fame reporting on live CBS radio during Nazi Germany’s aerial assault on London in World War II, labeled the conditions experienced by migrant field workers “as the forgotten people in America” and harvesting produce in the “sweat shops of the soil.” He was talking about those people who harvest our produce. But his comments, if stated today, could include workers in industrial farm animal production operations and slaughterhouses.

As policy makers review immigration policy, public health advocates and those representing agricultural immigrant workers should keep in mind the exposure to antibiotic resistant pathogens, novel flu viruses, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds that are part of the dominant industrial food animal production system. And they should demand that there is fundamental change in this industrial system to protect the health of workers, and the general populace, as part of any immigration reform debate.

Photo: Arthur Rothstein, The Library of Congress


  1. Why are “record numbers of deportations” something we should applaud? How does that “help more bipartisan dialogue occur”? I’m not following that point.

    And that fact that industrial “farms” want to be able to more easily hire the people desperate enough to be willing to work on them isn’t exactly a heartwarming thought either.

    Just saying…

  2. Robert Martin

    Posted by Bob Martin

    In response to Bill’s post:


    I was not applauding the record numbers of deportations but merely pointing out that Obama had begun to answer the ultra right wing people opposed to immigration reform until existing laws (esp. deportation) were enforced as well as those on the left wanting a path to citizenship by implementing some aspect of the DREAM Act through executive order, thus providing the beginning of a path to citizenship for those minors brought here by their parents. If you take care of the most extreme positions, that clears the way for a more bipartisan solution. I hope that clarifies things.

    I was not supporting making it easier for industrial farms or slaughter houses to hire people. They have an easy enough time as it is hiring people since the sanctions against employers hiring illegal immigrants are not enforced in the industrial meat production and processing sector because of its power.

    The point of the blog was to say that if the industrial sector wants immigration reform, then public health and environmental issues created by the industry should be addressed, especially the routine low level use of antibiotics that is a primary cause of antibiotic resistance, the generation of novel flu viruses and the exposure to pathogens through the careless disposal of animal waste by the industry.

    Bob Martin

  3. Robert Martin

    Posted by Bob Martin


    The Southern Poverty Law Center has just released a new report, “Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposalbe Workers” highlighting the health threats to workers in poultry processing plants. Recently, the poultry and swine processing industry have indicated an interest in speeding up the processing lines.

    Industry practices, whether they are in the processing facility or the production facility (industrial farm) should be challenged during the context of the debate on immigration reform.

  4. I think there’s a key piece missing here, to provide a context for the discussion. We also need immigration prevention, to reduce the need for people to leave their homes, cross the border, and come here to work, for example for CAFOs, which benefit from creating the very need for immigration. What? What I mean is that we need a “farm justice” farm bill, plus trade policy to back it up, so that we don’t allow the Agribusiness OutPut Complex (CAFOs, HFCS, transfats, cheap junk food ingredients) & others (ie. the AgBiz Input Complex) to force the US to lose money on exports of corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops. That’s anti-rural, anti-farmer, anti-business, anti-American, anti-immigrant, anti-LDC etc. So by dumping on Mexico, we create a need for immigration. We also further drive livestock off of farms and into CAFOs, subsidizing all of the buying corporations by huge amounts. In policy this also eliminates the topic of subsidies in the farm bill, as the need for subsidies was created by congress when they reduced Price Floors and Supply Management. We have higher corn and soybean prices now, which is good for Mexico, etc., but the US farm bill (& proposals) is the worst it’s been since Hoover. There are good reasons to believe that we’ll face oversupply in the coming years and a return to massive dumping, with a massive farm crisis destroying our food system, and gutting local food. We have only zero price floor proposals, even from the Food Movement & new Public Health Sector (with few exceptions). We need a massive change in advocacy. All of the “food justice” organizations supporting zero price floor proposals (full support for CAFOs, HFCS, transfats, etc.) need to get re-educated on what a farm bill is and how it works. The only adequate proposals out there are those of NFFC and NFU, the major “Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill.” All of the so-called “subsidy reforms” are zero price floor options, creating a need for immigration.

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