Today, the majority of hired farmworkers in the United States are foreign-born (USDA Economic Research Service). The category “foreign-born” includes authorized immigrants, immigrants who have become American citizens, undocumented immigrants and temporary migrant workers. It is no coincidence that so many U.S. farmworkers come from other countries, but can be seen as the result of immigration policies dating back to the early 20th century. In 1917, The Bracero Program (bracero refers to a “manual laborer” in Spanish) was created to fill the expected shortage of agricultural workers after World War I with Mexican migrants. The first round of the Bracero Program lasted just five years, but a second, larger round of the Bracero Program was launched after World War II. Labor abuse and wage theft were rampant issues from the start, and the government eventually shut down the program in the 1960s. 

In 1952, while the Bracero Program was still in place, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) established the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Visa program (“H-2A program”) to bring foreign workers to the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs where there are domestic workforce shortages. The H-2A program opened temporary agricultural employment opportunities to foreign-born workers beyond Mexico, but in many ways it was simply another iteration of the Bracero Program. Patterns of labor abuse have persisted under the H-2A program – which continues to this day – in large part because guestworkers can not change employers once they enter the United States. This creates a highly unequal power dynamic between employer and the guestworker: if a guestworker complains about unsafe living or working conditions, the employer can simply terminate their work visa, leaving the guestworker unemployed and without legal authority to remain in the United States. An investigative report shows how this power dynamic played out for a group of H-2A workers in Southeast Missouri. 

The agricultural industry has been uniquely exempt from a number of standards and regulations, which is sometimes referred to as “agricultural exceptionalism”. This applies to both labor and environmental protections. Basic labor protections awarded under the Fair Labor Standards Act and National Labor Relations Act do not apply to farmworkers, who face occupational exposures to extreme heat, chemical pesticides, and animal waste. Similarly, environmental regulation is notoriously lax in the agricultural industry – and the impacts of deficient environmental and labor protections often overlap. For example, the toxic chemical pesticides that pollute our air and water also result in up to 300,000 acute illnesses and injuries for farm workers each year, according to the EPA estimates. Livestock workers in particular are directly and disproportionately exposed to a number of noxious chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and bacterial pathogens from animal waste. The most common route of exposure to manure is animal waste from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). MCE recognizes CAFO waste as a severely under-regulated concern in Missouri.

Our mission at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment is to educate, organize, and advocate in defense of Missouri’s people and our environment. Missouri’s people – citizens, non-citizens alike – are stakeholders in creating and sustaining a healthy environment. We believe that the food system is an integral part of our environment. In order to build a more equitable, resilient, and environmentally-responsible food system we must consider the long history of exploiting Black and brown workers for agricultural labor and advocate for change. This is why MCE is starting to talk about immigration policy and we recognize that we are newcomers to advocating for and with migrant and immigrant workers. In March of 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), which proposes overdue changes to reform the H-2A program. While the H-2A is used more heavily in states like California and Texas, it is important for us to understand Missouri’s farm workforce and our opportunities to advocate for greater protections for farmworkers. You can learn more by reading MCE’s Migrant Farmworkers in Missouri factsheet.