Migrant workers reveal their Virginia farming experiences
Virginia’s agriculture business has an economic impact of $70 billion annually, making it the state’s largest private industry. More than 300,000 people are employed by farms in Virginia, many of whom are immigrant farmworkers — those who come legally with worker visas and others who live in the shadows.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, immigrant farmworkers make up an estimated 74% of agriculture workers.
In 2019, VPM News and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism reported that more than 10,000 migrant farmers traveled to Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic to plant and harvest crops, citing the Virginia Employment Commission.
During the pandemic, Virginia farmworkers were recognized as essential, yet they lack basic labor 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 just south of Richmond at La Markesita Garden by La Milpa Mexican Restaurant and Market.
Cruz Cristantos said he wakes up early each day with his coworkers to start the irrigation process of the plant. He checks the crops to make sure they are developing well and will yield better production.
Cruz Crisantos has over 20 years of farming experience, and he’s been coming to Virginia to farm for the last four years.
“Working with nature, the plants, it's something beautiful — unique. You feel comforted,” Cruz Cristiantos said in Spanish. “Why? Because it’s like when you were working in your country. And you can act, you can imagine like you are still there and that this is just temporary.”
Cruz Crisantos is one of hundreds of thousands of people who enter the U.S. legally with an H-2A visa each year. H-2A visas are sponsored by U.S. employers and allow migrants to fill temporary agricultural jobs.
The U.S. Department of Labor certified about 317,000 jobs in 2021 under the H-2A visa program, more than six times the number certified in 2005. Despite the jump in unemployment caused by the pandemic, the H-2A visa program has continued to expand, the Department of Labor said.
Cruz Crisantos said the program is mutually beneficial. He was able to enter the country legally and can temporarily provide the farm with his decades of knowledge. In exchange, he said, he has a place to live and a base salary.
The only downside, Cruz Crisantos said, is leaving his family.
“It feels ugly to leave your family. Because you miss out on many moments with them, including birthdays,” Cruz Cristiantos said in Spanish. “You come here and you go back, and you find them older. Everything is different. Time is something you don’t get back.”
Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Joe Guthrie said "guest workers" who come from other countries are essential and irreplaceable.
“It's very important that we have immigrant workers, guest workers who come to Virginia and are able to fulfill the jobs that need to be done,” Guthrie said. “They very often bring very valuable skill sets with them.”
Guthrie pointed out that the pandemic showed how fragile America’s supply chain and food systems are. And so, when writing policies, guest workers should be considered.
“I would certainly hope that our policies would keep in mind the welfare of the workers who are coming here from other places and the value that they provide to us,” Guthrie said. “Look at how important they are to our supply chain and to our food systems.”
Virginia Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) said advocating for the rights of farmworkers is personal to her, as many of the workers look like her. Guzman is also the granddaughter of Peruvian farmers.
“Where I come from, my grandfather instilled in me the value of how to appreciate people who work for you. When I came here, and I [compared], I realized that the reality was different,” Guzman said. “If [the farmworkers] are fortunate to come with a [H-2A] visa to get a job ... even though they [entered] this country legally though a visa, they have no rights. They can work long hours without breaks and without good conditions to live. On the other hand, you have those who came here illegally, and that’s even worse. They cannot speak up or say anything.”
Earlier this year, the Virginia Senate scaled back a worker overtime pay bill to exclude farmworkers. The original bill would have given them the right to sue for unpaid overtime wages.
Guzman said she’s realized the exemptions that modern day farmworkers face are tied to the Jim Crow era, when people of color were exempt of any type of rights.
Guzman, who has visited migrant farm camps around the state, said the pandemic highlighted the often-challenging conditions farmworkers face.
“Many of them have to share a bathroom. Many of them don't have ... AC in the summer or even heat in the wintertime,” Guzman said. ”They just tried to follow wherever they could work according to the season.”
As worker justice program director at Legal Aid Justice Center, Manuel Gago travels across the state informing farmworkers of what to do when they face injustice and providing them with helpful resources. Gago said farmworker outreach can be difficult since workers are often isolated in camps across Virginia.
“Unfortunately, farmworkers do not have many protections. It’s something that happens across the nation except for the usual states like California, Oregon, New York, Washington — that do offer more protections,” Gago said. “It’s sad to see that farmworkers don’t have the right to minimum wage, overtime. They don’t have the right to unionize or protect themselves.”
Gago said when LAJC does outreach, they mainly go to listen to the 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. It doesn’t matter what [your legal status is],” Gago said. “What they do is priceless, and they need to be respected.”
Emilio Lopez Castello entered illegally into the U.S. in 1996 and has worked in Virginia’s Christmas tree industry ever since. He is currently in the process of legalization.
Lopez Castello said working with Christmas trees is delicate but dangerous work. Workers must tend to the tree, trimming and shaping it over years before it can light up a household during the holiday season.
“One of the biggest dangers is when you are trimming, you can cut yourself if you are not careful. If the area is grassy, you could cut yourself deep with the machete,” Lopez Castello said in Spanish. “I’ve heard that when you spray [pesticides], it’s pure poison. The poison can hurt you. Over time, if you work with Christmas trees, then you need to be very careful and take care of yourself because [of the] chemicals.”
Lopez Castello said he would like to see Virginia farmworkers, like himself, protected and supported.
“They need to support the farmworker. Give us the adequate tools we need. Give us breaks, vacation time and extra time,” Lopez Castello said. “Because a lot of people work 10 hours daily, sometimes six days a week, and they still don’t pay them overtime. That is not right.”