Vilsack: Undocumented immigrants are ‘orphaned' workers who deserve dignity
March 27, 2012 | 06:52 PM
at the Department of Labor on Monday, as the Farm Worker Movement
was inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor. (Department of Labor)
By JERRY HAGSTROM
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called upon Congress Monday to reform immigration laws so that today’s farm workers can gain legal status in the United States, in a speech at a Labor Department ceremony honoring United Farm Workers Founder César Chávez.
Stepping to the podium, Vilsack asked the largely Latino audience if they knew “how difficult it is for a white, male Caucasian” to follow Salazar and precede Solis and other Latino leaders at the event.
But he noted that he had started life in a Catholic orphanage in Pennsylvania without “a support system or a connection to an ethnic group. “
“We are recognizing those who worked for too long orphaned — those who picked, processed and packaged food” in order to support their own families,” Vilsack said.
“They did not receive the dignity or recognition they should have received until some people stood up,” Vilsack continued. “Those who pick and process our food are entitled to dignity.”
He also recognized immigrants “who do work that others do not do” as “another group of orphaned folk are immigrants.”
Vilsack noted that the “real” civil rights movement has not been led by political leaders but ordinary people. “We are at that point again in the United States,” he said. “It is time to ask the political leaders in Congress to fix the immigration system.”
The audience responded with a standing ovation and chants of Si, se puede — the battle cry of the farm worker movement and also the Spanish equivalent of Obama’s 2008 election slogan, “Yes, we can.”
Growers, farm worker unions and President Barack Obama have called for immigration reform that would permit longtime workers who are in the United States illegally to stay in the country and to set up a more modern system to recruit foreign workers, but Congress has failed to reach agreement on a bill.
Vilsack joined Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other Obama administration officials at a ceremony inducting pioneers of the farm worker movement into the Labor Hall of Fame and naming the department’s auditorium after Chávez, who was born in 1927 and died in 1993.
The pioneers inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame included five movement martyrs whose families were present for the ceremony.
During the ceremony, labor leaders such as Dolores Huerta, who cofounded the United Farm Workers with Chávez, recalled the struggle — known as la lucha in Spanish — including the famed table grape strike in the 1960s and the improvements the union has brought.
Paul Chavez, a son of César Chávez, noted that large strawberry farms, the Gallo winery, the largest dairy in California and 75 percent of mushroom pickers are now unionized. The mushroom pickers, he said, make $30,000 to $40,000 per year and get paid vacation and health care.
Labor leaders also noted that workers in Florida have made progress.
Huerta noted that Chávez had said it would be difficult to establish a national union because the growers “are too powerful, too rich and too racist.”
“But we will continue,” she added.
As Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, pulled away the curtain that covered the name of the auditorium, Solis said she was proud to create the first living memorial to Chávez in Washington, D.C.
Farm workers still face many battles, Solis said, including working long hours in the sun and exposure to pesticides.
But she distributed a three-page document noting the Obama administration’s commitment to enforcement of statutes and regulations on behalf of farm workers. The steps Solis cited included new regulations for H-2A temporary agricultural visas that strengthen worker protections and hiring more than 300 Labor Department investigators.
The Labor Department ceremonies were part of an extended celebration of Chávez’s life that appears to be tied to Obama’s re-election campaign.
Today the White House will honor 10 Latinos that Obama has recognized as Chávez Champions of Change, including several farm worker activists.
The White House also announced today that on April 5 Salazar will address the 12th Annual César Chávez Legacy Awards Dinner in Los Angeles. In May Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Juan Garcia will keynote a U.S. Navy ceremony in San Diego to christen the USNS César Chávez in recognition of the civil rights leader’s service during World War II.
As has been his custom for a number of years, Obama proclaimed March 31, which will be the 85th anniversary of Chávez’s birth, to be César Chávez Day.
Obama noted that his administration has designated Chávez’s compound in Delano, Calif., as a national historic landmark.
The proclamation noted that Chávez had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and based his campaign on principles of nonviolence.
“Through boycotts, fasts, strikes and marches that demanded both endurance and imagination, he drew thousands together in support of La Causa — a mission to ensure respect, dignity and fair treatment for farm workers,” the proclamation says.
“As we honor his broad ambitions and expansive vision, let us pledge to stand forever on the side of equal opportunity and justice for all.”