A new study warns that ongoing failures to protect the basic rights of undocumented workers in the U.S. "threatens both public health and national food security."
The study, released on Monday by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, says that U.S. food security depends on the well-being of the farm workers at the heart of the agricultural industry.
"Vilifying political rhetoric and enforcement actions that aim to punish undocumented immigrants fail to confront Americans' reliance on these workers for the food they eat," said Bob Martin, co-author of the report and director of the Johns Hopkins Food System Policy Program.
"We need to change the debate and discuss immigration reform in a way that acknowledges these workers' contributions to our food system, prioritizes occupational health and safety, and empowers workers to demand fair and safe working conditions."
Of the two million farm workers who feed the U.S. every day, an estimated 50 to 75 percent are undocumented.
Their undocumented status — combined with the low unionization rate in the U.S. agricultural industry — makes them particularly vulnerable to some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country, including pesticide exposure, injuries, poor air quality, contact with animal waste, exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and exposure to novel strains of the flu virus.
These workplace hazards — combined with poor housing, lack of access to health care, and fear of job loss and threats of deportation — created an "unstable and vulnerable" workforce which, according to the authors, "may threaten the supply and safety of food."
"The stability of the U.S. food supply is inextricably tied to the stability of an agricultural workforce, yet much of our current workforce is unauthorized to work in the U.S. and is continually threatened with the health consequences of poor working and living conditions," the authors wrote.
The report, titled "Public Health, Immigration Reform, and Food System Change," noted that even beyond the moral urgency of protecting these workers' basic rights, providing legal status to undocumented workers would improve conditions and wages for the entire sector.
"Until workers have authorization to work in the U.S. and other legal protections such as the right to organize, wages and working conditions will remain depressed for all U.S. agricultural workers," said Claire Fitch, the lead author of the report.
"The significant mental and physical health risks undocumented agricultural workers face demand urgent attention and action," she added.
Beyond granting immediate legal status and protection, the authors recommend extending health insurance to all agricultural workers, removing minimum wage exemptions for farm workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, full extension of workers compensation benefits, and increased funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.