Migrant Workers Bring Needed Skills

Friday, Sep. 06, 2019
By Jean Hill
Director, Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace and Justice Commission

I am very grateful we no longer live in an age when a family had to sow, grow, raise and slaughter its own produce and meat. While I can grow enough zucchini to feed an army, my skills are limited to plants such as zucchini that pretty much raise themselves. I also full intend to grow old never having slaughtered any living thing.

Thus, I am also extremely grateful for the multitudes of skilled farm and ranch workers who bring an abundance of food to our collective tables. These workers, and their specialized agricultural and animal husbandry knowledge, make life far more comfortable for the vast majority of us.

Sadly, our immigration laws fail to recognize the expertise of our migrant farm workers. Current and past administrations regularly tout the need to open our doors to highly skilled immigrants. While there is a clear need to open far more doors for immigrants, “high-skilled” in the corridors of Congress and executive offices usually means people in technology industries and/or with university degrees.

America needs individuals with loads of academic experience, but we also need individuals with decades of experience learned on the job, in the fields and farmhouses or kitchens and childcare centers.  To label farm or domestic workers as unskilled is to deny the dignity of the work performed by thousands of people who make a massive contribution to our American standard of living.  

Ask your local farmer or, for those us in more urban areas, the farmers at the farmers’ market, just how valuable migrant workers are because they are willing to do backbreaking labor, but also because of the knowledge they have about crops and how to get the most yield and protect soil and water resources.

The American Immigration Council tells the story of one agricultural worker, Arnulfo:  

Arnulfo labors at a commercial hog-raising farm in Utah, overseeing a section that functions independently. Each section raises pigs, which are then shipped to slaughterhouses. Among the 300 sections that comprise the farm, Arnulfo’s section ranks first in the number of pigs born and their rate of fattening. He credits his working knowledge on the care and reproductive behavior of pigs from his experience working at a similar facility in Mexico.

As Arnulfo’s story illustrates, agricultural workers don’t just need physical strength and stamina, they need mechanical skills and the kind of knowledge that comes from years of working with animals or crops.  

The same is true for other jobs typically open to migrants. Ask anyone who has used a maid service just how valuable someone with extensive knowledge in stain removal, deep cleaning and the proper mixing of cleaning chemicals is to their business or home. That a person’s pay is low does not necessarily mean they are unskilled, it may just mean their skills have not been properly valued in our market economy.

So when our congressional delegation or president talk about the need to open doors to more skilled workers, we can strongly agree, provided the definition of skilled is expanded to include those whose skills come not from textbooks but from decades of on the job experience.

As we honor workers each Labor Day, take a break from your own labors to advocate for the dignity of work and the rights of workers. Contact Senator Mike Lee and Senator Mitt Romney and ask them to support S. 175 Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019 providing earned legal status for agricultural workers, and to promote similar measures for other skilled migrant laborers.

Jean Hill is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Office of Life, Justice and Peace. She can be reached at jean.hill@dioslc.org.

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