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As Food and Farmworkers Retreat, Guestworker Program Poised to Grow

An unfamiliar car pulled into the labor camp of a blueberry farm in Southern New Jersey last month, and the four year-round farmworkers on site stopped what they were doing, went inside, and locked themselves in their rooms. Afraid of being deported by federal immigration agents operating with increased authority since President Trump signed an executive order to that effect in January, the workers stayed locked in their rooms overnight, forgoing dinner and talking to each other through the walls rather than in the open.

Though the strange car ultimately proved harmless, the workers later described the incident—and how fearful they felt—to Kathia Ramirez, the food justice coordinator of a farmworker support committee called El Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas, or CATA.

“The undocumented community is living in more fear and hiding under the shadows,” Ramirez said. “People should not live with the fear that they will be detained and not know what will happen to their families.”

While the ultimate effect of the anxiety remains to be seen, several likely possibilities exist, according to the people with whom Civil Eats spoke. As some foreign-born workers retreat from sight, farms and restaurants may have a hard time securing the staff they need to harvest crops and serve meals. Additionally, worker exploitation may proliferate as farmers rely increasingly on the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, known to place workers at a disadvantage, and as workers refrain from speaking up for themselves for fear of deportation.

The American food system relies heavily on the work of people born outside U.S. borders, many of whom are undocumented—and living on edge. In fact, 73 percent of the 2.5 million farmworkers planting, cultivating, and harvesting our crops each season are foreign-born, mostly in Mexico. And between 30 percent and 70 percent are undocumented, according to various sources.

On the service industry side, of the 12 million restaurant workers in the U.S., 1.3 million, or 11 percent, are undocumented, and an additional 2.6 million are foreign-born but documented, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. In major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, closer to 45 percent of restaurant workers are undocumented, and 70 percent are foreign born, ROC United estimates.

Since deportations have picked up—targeting more varied populations than the Obama administration campaign, including young people registered with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—immigrants are wary of traveling or appearing in public.

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