Virginia’s agribusiness has an economic impact of $70 billion per year, making it the state’s largest private industry. More than 300,000 people are employed on farms in Virginia, many of whom are migrant farm workers – those who come legally on work visas and others who live in the shadows.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, immigrant farm workers make up an estimated 74% of farm workers.
In 2019, VPM News and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism reported that more than 10,000 migrant farmers traveled to Virginia to plant and harvest crops during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing the Virginia Employment Commission.
During the pandemic, rural workers in Virginia have been recognized as essential, yet they lack basic job protections like minimum wage, overtime pay and the right to organize.
Luis Genaro Cruz Crisantos is a long way from Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, Mexico, where he was born and raised. Cruz Crisantos works south of Richmond at La Markesita Garden by La Milpa Mexican Restaurant and Market.
Cruz Cristantos said he gets up early every day with his colleagues to begin the irrigation process at the facility. He checks the plants to make sure they are doing well and getting better production.
Cruz Crisantos has over 20 years of farming experience and has been coming to Virginia to farm for four years.
“Working with nature, with plants, is something beautiful – unique. You feel comforted,” said Cruz Cristiantos in Spanish. “Why? Because it’s like you’ve worked in your country. And you can act, you can imagine that you’re still there and that it’s only temporary.”
Cruz Crisantos is one of hundreds of thousands of people who enter the United States legally each year on H-2A visas. Sponsored by U.S. employers, H-2A visas allow migrants to hold temporary agricultural jobs.
The U.S. Department of Labor certified approximately 317,000 jobs under the H-2A visa program in 2021, more than six times the number in 2005. Despite the surge in unemployment caused by the pandemic, the H-2A visa program continued to expand. This was announced by the Ministry of Labor.
Cruz Crisantos said the program was mutually beneficial. He was able to enter the country legally and can temporarily provide the court with his decades of knowledge. In exchange, he said, he had an apartment and a base salary.
The only downside, Cruz Crisantos said, is leaving his family.
“It feels ugly to leave your family. Because you miss a lot of moments with them, including birthdays,” said Cruz Cristiantos in Spanish. “You come here and you go back and you find her older. Everything is different. Time is something you cannot get back.”
Virginia Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Joe Guthrie said “migrant workers” who come from other countries are essential and irreplaceable.
“It’s very important that we have immigrant workers, guest workers who come into Virginia and are able to do the jobs that need to be done,” Guthrie said. “They often bring very valuable skills with them.”
Guthrie pointed out that the pandemic has shown how fragile America’s supply chain and food systems are. Therefore, immigrant workers should be taken into account when drafting policies.
“I would certainly hope that our policy would keep in mind the welfare of workers coming here from other places and the value they offer us,” Guthrie said. “Look at how important they are to our supply chain and our food systems.”
Virginia Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) said that standing up for farm workers’ rights was personal because many of the workers resembled her. Guzman is also the granddaughter of Peruvian farmers.
“Where I come from, my grandfather taught me to appreciate the people who work for you. When I came here and I [compared]I realized the reality was different,” Guzman said. “If [the farmworkers] are lucky enough to come up with a [H-2A] visa to get a job…although they [entered] this country legal although a visa, they have no rights. They can work long hours without breaks and without good living conditions. On the other hand, there are those who came here illegally, and that’s even worse. You cannot speak or say anything.”
Earlier this year, the Virginia Senate cut an overtime pay bill to exclude farm workers. The original bill would have given them the right to sue for unpaid overtime wages.
Guzman said she recognized that the exceptions modern farm workers face are linked to the Jim Crow era, when people of color were exempt from any kind of rights.
Guzman, who has visited migrant farmer camps across the state, said the pandemic has highlighted the often challenging conditions farm workers face.
“A lot of them have to share a bathroom. Many of them have no air conditioning in the summer or no heating at all in the winter,” Guzman said. “They just tried to follow where they could work based on the season.”
As program director for workers’ justice at the Legal Aid Justice Center, Manuel Gago travels the state, educating farm workers on what to do when they face injustice and providing them with helpful resources. Gago said that contacting farm workers can be difficult because workers are often isolated in camps across Virginia.
“Unfortunately, farm workers don’t have many safeguards. It’s something that’s happening across the country, except for the usual states like California, Oregon, New York, Washington — which have more protections,” Gago said. “It is sad to see that farm workers are not entitled to minimum wages and overtime. They have no right to unionize or protect themselves.”
Gago said when LAJC makes contact, they go primarily to listen to farmworkers so they can work to address concerns from the fields during the General Assembly session.
“They need to know that with or without documentation, they need to be treated like human beings. No matter what [your legal status is]’ said Gago. “What they do is priceless and they must be respected.”
Emilio Lopez Castello entered the US illegally in 1996 and has been working in the Christmas tree industry in Virginia ever since. It is currently in the process of legalization.
Lopez Castello said working with Christmas trees is delicate but dangerous work. Laborers must tend to the tree, trimming and shaping it for years before it can light up a household during the holiday season.
“One of the biggest dangers of trimming is that you can cut yourself if you’re not careful. If the area is grassy, you could cut yourself deep with the machete,” Lopez Castello said in Spanish. “I’ve heard that before when you spray [pesticides], it’s pure poison. The poison can hurt you. Working with Christmas trees over time, you need to be very careful and take care of yourself [of the] chemicals.”
Lopez Castello said he would like to see Virginia farm workers like him protected and supported.
“You have to support the farm workers. Give us the proper tools we need. Give us breaks, vacations and extra time,” Lopez Castello said. “Because a lot of people work 10 hours a day, sometimes six days a week, and they still don’t get paid overtime. That is not right.”