Just over a week ago, we celebrated the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs’ 40th Anniversary. We did so in the middle of our annual national conference in Arlington, Virginia. Both events were attended by over 360 people, all committed to improving the lives of our nation’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
It is sometimes hard to believe an organization that began in 1971 as a federation of eight small non-profit and public organizations could grow into a nationwide network of 52 agencies serving over 100,000 farmworkers each year. They provide such programs as job training and placement, pesticide safety, housing, health, Head Start, and other services desperately needed by the people who work so hard in the fields for such little pay.
Our Gala Dinner that celebrated the tremendous accomplishments of this association was a terrific event, and not just because of the wonderful camaraderie among all the current and former AFOP leaders in attendance. It also celebrated our partnerships with other farmworker and job training groups that we invited, groups that were so important in sustaining us during those terrible years from 2002-2009 when the Department of Labor funding for farmworker job training was threatened with elimination.
It was a great time to reflect on our rich and, in some ways, glorious past. But more importantly, it was an opportunity to consider our current environment and think about the tasks ahead. We were helped in that area by challenging speeches from Arturo S. Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), and by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Mr. Rodriguez had just come from a 200 mile march in California, highlighting the need for easing the laws that restrict that state’s huge farmworker population from organizing into unions. While union organizing in the private sector has been declining in recent years, for farmworkers and some other low wage workers, it is front and center as one of the only ways they can improve their wages and working conditions. Mr. Rodriguez urged us to support the cause of worker rights in the fields.
Secretary Vilsack issued a challenge of a different sort. He spoke of the rising negative attitudes in this country toward low-income undocumented immigrants. While AFOP members only serve farmworkers who provide proof of citizenship or verification they are authorized to work in the U.S. through the National Farmworker Jobs Program, this issue is well known to those who heard his message that night. Most farmworkers are undocumented; many have children and/or other family members who were born here or are documented. He talked about the horrors many of these families endure each day, wondering if the breadwinner will come home or be deported. He urged us to support comprehensive immigration reform so that the state laws that are being passed that attempt to criminalize these workers and their families will lose their impact.
He advised us that we have every right to be angry, and if we are not, we should be. Secretary Vilsack went so far as to suggest that maybe it is time to take actions that will make it impossible for policymakers to ignore the pleas for justice for immigrant farmworkers and others. He wondered aloud what it would be like if we all joined in a prayer circle around the United States Capitol, and people did the same around every state capital in the country. Would that cause some lawmakers to rethink the injustices they are perpetrating through some of this repressive legislation? Would it cause Congress to finally move comprehensive immigration reform to change a system that all agree is broken?
Secretary Vilsack’s words certainly have inspired me to re-think my approach to how we might be effective advocates for a just and equitable federal immigration reform law. I think he caused nearly everyone in that dining hall to consider what is to be done, and to realize that right now we who believe in the cause of farmworkers are not doing enough.
The 40th Anniversary may turn out to be the beginning of a renewal of the energy that motivated the founders of AFOP those many decades ago. As Mr. Vilsack said as he ended his speech, “We must have hope.”