Somewhere in between the excruciating contractions that, after about twenty hours, led to my beautiful daughter, Zipporah, being born a few weeks ago, my wife began to curse Eve. According to the biblical account, after Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God’s command, God punished Eve—and womankind after her—declaring that he would make “pains in childbearing very severe” such that only “with painful labor you will give birth to children” (Genesis 3:16).
Diana—who is witty and biblically literate in addition to being (it turns out) stronger than me—then made another observation: Adam’s punishment for his role in the original sin was that the land was cursed, such that only “through painful toil” would he—and all mankind after him—cultivate food to eat. But, while Diana’s still stuck with Eve’s curse, I’ve managed to avoid all the pain involved in the cultivation of food: in our country, we’ve outsourced that curse. According to Bread for the World, about three-quarters of all farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants, most of them undocumented. They do some of the hardest work in our country for incredibly low wages: the average farmworker earns just $11,000 per year.
Agricultural work is not just the domain of male immigrant workers, though. According to a recent investigative report on Frontline, there are more than half a million female farmworkers in the U.S. Beyond the hardships of male farmworkers, many women in the fields report being victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and even rape—but they fear being fired and, for the majority who are undocumented immigrants, deported if they report their abuse. For example, Olivia Tamayo, who works on an almond farm in Central California, says she was raped three times at gunpoint by her supervisor; despite a jury finding her claims credible and ruling in her favor in a civil lawsuit, the alleged perpetrator, Rene Rodriguez, has never been charged criminally.
Sexual abuse of undocumented agricultural is not limited to the fields, either. The Frontline report highlights a situation at an egg processing plant in Iowa where women claimed to have been locked up for several days at a time; several report being raped on the job. But they feared going to the police, who were simultaneously responsible for discovering crime against these undocumented women and for assisting federal immigration officers with detaining them for their lack of legal status. “It puts a victim in an almost impossible situation,” acknowledges Paul Schultz, who at the time of the incident was the sheriff of Wright County, Iowa, and who eventually was able to help the undocumented rape victims obtain “U” visas for victims of certain violent crimes. Their alleged perpetrators, however, have never been prosecuted.
Unless you grow all of your own food, you’re a part of this system. The sin that entered the world through Adam and Eve is pernicious, infecting both individuals and systems. It’s easiest not to know that the almonds in my morning cereal or the eggs in my omelet may have been brought to my breakfast table by a woman who, vulnerable because of her lack of legal status, has been the victim of rape. But our own ignorance does not remove us from the system.
God has instituted government to bring order and justice to these broken systems, to be his “servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). For too long, despite the noble effort of some individuals, our federal government has allowed injustice to persist in our immigration systems, but there is reason to be hopeful. The bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by a super-majority of the U.S. Senate two weeks ago includes provisions specifically focused on agricultural workers that would allow them to earn legal status, dramatically limiting their vulnerability to both sexual and labor abuses.
For that bill—or something close to it—to become law, however, the U.S. House of Representatives will need to pass similar legislation, which will then need to be merged with language passed by the Senate and finally signed by the President. The Republican Members of the House—who form the majority and thus determine the agenda—will reportedly be meeting this Wednesday (July 10) to decide if, when, and how they will address immigration. While some have been outspoken in their desire to proceed, others have been staunchly opposed to any sort of reform. The decisions of the many Members “on the fence” in Wednesday’s private meeting will likely determine the ultimate fate of immigration reform until at least 2015, and they will be doing their best in the coming days to gauge the level of support for reform among their constituents.
If the situation of undocumented farmworkers grieves you as it does me, if your own complicity in our food system makes you uncomfortable enough that you’d rather not think about it, then please—at a minimum—take one minute to make a phone call before you eat next. In fact, perhaps for the next few days, it should be part of your dining routine, just before you bow your head to thank God for the food. If you dial 866-877-5552 and simply enter your zip code, you will be automatically connected to a Representative’s office, where you can leave a message (with the receptionist or onto voicemail) urging him or her to pursue common-sense immigration reform this summer. Let them know, also, that you will be praying for them—and then please make sure that you keep that promise. As we join our prayers with those of undocumented farmworkers yearning for justice, we can trust that “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4).
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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