Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Mexican Farmworkers Are U.S. Heroes

Foreign agriculture laborers deserve far more attention from Washington’s national security establishment.

By , the former special assistant to the U.S. secretary of state.
Day laborers harvest chives at a field in the Mexicali Valley, Baja California state, Mexico alongside the Mexico-US border, on August 10, 2017.
Day laborers harvest chives at a field in the Mexicali Valley, Baja California state, Mexico alongside the Mexico-US border, on August 10, 2017.
Day laborers harvest chives at a field in the Mexicali Valley, Baja California state, Mexico alongside the Mexico-US border, on August 10, 2017. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images

When Nazi Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941, food was on the center of its agenda. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s catastrophic strategic choice to invade the Soviet Union was motivated in large part with the dream of capturing Ukraine’s wheat fields and thus securing a food supply for Germany that none of the Western Allies’ naval might could disrupt. The strategic significance of the Ukrainian breadbasket is evident again today, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine disrupts Ukraine’s ability to harvest, plant, or export its grain—creating a food crisis from Southeast Asia to North Africa.

But even as the United States works to get Ukrainian grain past Russia’s blockade, Americans often take their own food supply for granted. This was also the case in World War II, when the United States ensured that the Allies never had to worry about food in the same way the Axis did. And this bounty of food—a pillar of U.S. strength and resilience—is in turn thanks to some unsung American heroes: farmworkers. Too often invisible in American society, it is these predominantly Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American workers who pick the United States’ crops—come rain, heat wave, fire, war, or plague.

The World War II-era Bracero program is the most famous example of just how essential Mexicans are to the United States’ agricultural production. Initiated in August 1942 with a bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico, the Bracero program recruited Mexican men to come work in U.S. agriculture as well as other critical essential infrastructure, such as railways. It was clear then just how essential Mexican farmworkers were to the U.S. war effort, with American agriculture facing severe labor shortages as men were called up to serve or found more lucrative employment in defense manufacturing. Thanks to the Bracero program, the United States wouldn’t just be the arsenal of democracy; it would be the food pantry of democracy too. Although the program was often rife with abuse and exploitation of the Mexican workers themselves, it proved so immensely popular with agricultural employers that it would be extended after the war’s end. From 1942 until the program’s end in 1964, more than 4 million Mexican men came to work in the United States as Braceros. (My grandfather was among them.) By then, the Bracero program had solidified the dependency of U.S. agriculture on Mexican immigrant labor.

When Nazi Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941, food was on the center of its agenda. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s catastrophic strategic choice to invade the Soviet Union was motivated in large part with the dream of capturing Ukraine’s wheat fields and thus securing a food supply for Germany that none of the Western Allies’ naval might could disrupt. The strategic significance of the Ukrainian breadbasket is evident again today, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine disrupts Ukraine’s ability to harvest, plant, or export its grain—creating a food crisis from Southeast Asia to North Africa.

But even as the United States works to get Ukrainian grain past Russia’s blockade, Americans often take their own food supply for granted. This was also the case in World War II, when the United States ensured that the Allies never had to worry about food in the same way the Axis did. And this bounty of food—a pillar of U.S. strength and resilience—is in turn thanks to some unsung American heroes: farmworkers. Too often invisible in American society, it is these predominantly Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American workers who pick the United States’ crops—come rain, heat wave, fire, war, or plague.

The World War II-era Bracero program is the most famous example of just how essential Mexicans are to the United States’ agricultural production. Initiated in August 1942 with a bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico, the Bracero program recruited Mexican men to come work in U.S. agriculture as well as other critical essential infrastructure, such as railways. It was clear then just how essential Mexican farmworkers were to the U.S. war effort, with American agriculture facing severe labor shortages as men were called up to serve or found more lucrative employment in defense manufacturing. Thanks to the Bracero program, the United States wouldn’t just be the arsenal of democracy; it would be the food pantry of democracy too. Although the program was often rife with abuse and exploitation of the Mexican workers themselves, it proved so immensely popular with agricultural employers that it would be extended after the war’s end. From 1942 until the program’s end in 1964, more than 4 million Mexican men came to work in the United States as Braceros. (My grandfather was among them.) By then, the Bracero program had solidified the dependency of U.S. agriculture on Mexican immigrant labor.

Like World War II, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was a global crisis in which food security quickly became a paramount concern. Again, farmworkers proved the critical human link that prevented the United States’ food supply chain from snapping. With the Bracero program long gone, Mexican immigrant farmworkers in the 21st century are generally either undocumented or on H-2A guest worker visas. Either way, they are barred from accessing U.S. citizenship by law. This precarity denies them the right to democratic participation, labor organizing free from retaliation, or access to the United States’ limited social safety net. Farmworkers in America also face low wages and unsafe working conditions, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, including exposure to dangerous pesticides, deadly temperatures, and wildfire smoke. Agriculture remains one of the deadliest industries in the United States. In a particular bitter irony, many farmworkers struggle with food insecurity. The workers who feed America can often not afford to feed their own families.

Yet despite being treated as disposable throughout U.S. history, farmworkers were designated “essential” during the COVID-19 crisis. Farmworkers were told to keep going to work even while the rest of the country was told to stay home. Ironically, it was the Trump administration that declared agricultural workers part of America’s “critical essential infrastructure.” Even as the Trump administration used the pandemic to effectively close the border to asylum-seekers under Title 42, that same Trump administration made sure to continue allowing Mexicans on H2-A agricultural worker visas to enter at the urging of the farm lobby. As Americans lined up at food banks and grocery shelves ran empty, it was farmworkers whose hard and increasingly dangerous work kept a full-blown food crisis at bay. Tragically, like many other workers in essential critical infrastructure sectors, farmworkers paid a frightful price for being on the front line of the pandemic.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world has been reminded of the dramatic intersection between food production and geopolitics. Beyond ensuring that the United States’ domestic food supply chain remains unaffected, the labor of farmworkers in America also directly relates to the conflict. For example, California grows the sunflower seeds that both Ukraine and Russia then use for sunflower oil production. Disruptions to the global sunflower oil supply from the war have rippled around the world, from rising costs at Britain’s fish and chips shops to Indonesia’s (since-lifted) ban on palm oil exports. Yet all that sunflower oil production of global significance in turn begins in places like Yolo County, California, which grows around 40 percent of the state’s sunflower seed for export—and it is farmworkers there who carefully tend to the sunflower fields as they grow and ready the seeds for harvesting. It is a contribution to global food security that Yolo County’s farmworkers can be rightly proud of. Yet these are the same farmworkers who struggle with food insecurity themselves. I also personally know minors who have worked in these sunflower fields when they should have been in school, another legacy of agriculture’s exclusion from many basic labor laws—in this case, child labor.

National security professionals and foreign-policy makers in Washington no doubt rarely pause in their busy days to think about the Latino farmworkers in the fields of South Texas or California’s Central Valley. Foreign policy is too often siloed off from domestic concerns such as agriculture or immigration, whereas foreign-policy professions remain infamously unrepresentative of the United States’ diversity. But there is no better time for American strategists and foreign-policy professionals to pay more attention to the working and living conditions of farmworkers in America. As the world faces a still raging pandemic and yet another invasion of Ukraine, farmworkers are as essential to U.S. national security in 2022 as they were in 1942. With the vulnerability of global supply chains exposed, keeping America able to produce enough food to feed itself—and to export to a world in need—depends on ensuring it has a healthy and resilient agricultural workforce at home.

There is no better way to improve the health and resilience of farmworkers in America than allowing them to fully participate in U.S. democracy, rely on U.S. labor protections, and access the U.S. social safety net. This means addressing the original sin of agricultural labor policy, going back to the 1930s when agricultural labor was explicitly excluded from protection under the New Deal’s labor laws for explicitly racist reasons. Thankfully, the Biden administration has already begun to demonstrate how improving farmworker rights has a place in American foreign policy by coming to an agreement to address rampant abuse in the H2-A guest worker visa system as a deliverable at the Summit of the Americas (along with seeking to expanding the program to Central America). U.S. President Joe Biden—who has a bust of former civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in the Oval Office—also publicly pressured Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a law reducing barriers to unionization for farmworkers in California, empowering farmworkers to fight for greater safety and protections on the job. And, of course, the most dramatic way to improve farmworkers’ lives remains common sense immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. Only then will all farmworkers be able to access the full labor rights and protections of U.S. law.

These long overdue reforms will strengthen the resiliency of the United States’ food system in what promises to be an unpredictable and conflict-prone decade ahead. Improving the conditions of agricultural labor could also help improve America’s relationship with Mexico, which has long expressed concern for the conditions of the Mexican diaspora in the United States. Higher wages and better conditions for Mexican workers in the United States in turn means increased remittances for Mexican communities as well as ensuring a genuinely level playing field for U.S. citizen workers (who, in agriculture, will almost certainly be themselves of Mexican origin). Above all, U.S. national security should rest on a just and stable society at home. A key foundation of global resilience—food security—should not rely on the exploitation and abuse of one of America’s most vulnerable workforces.

It is farmworkers who have held the line, at great personal risk, against hunger and disease. It is farmworkers who will keep America relatively insulated from the food security crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and help U.S. food aid step up to meet the gap. As the world receives a real-time lesson on the relationship between food security and geopolitics, the time has come to recognize how much the world owes the farmworkers who put the food on America’s table.

Antonio De Loera-Brust is the former special assistant to the U.S. secretary of state. He previously worked for Rep. Joaquin Castro and on the policy teams of the Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren presidential campaigns. He is a native of Yolo County, California.

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