Around Acadiana

Nov 23, 2010 9:41 AM by Kate Durio

Migrant Workers in Acadiana

In 1960, one of America's most respected journalists, Edward R. Murrow, showcased the plight of migrant farm workers in America as Americans were pushing their chairs away from the table after Thanksgiving.

His highly revered documentary "Harvest of Shame" entered living rooms across America and is cited as an important part of informing the public to pave the way for migrant worker law changes.

Now in 2010, fifty Thanksgivings later, the working conditions of the migrant farm worker in America have improved but migrant worker issues are still making headlines.

"I like talking about people who don't have any power. And it seems that one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That's an interesting contradiction to me," said Stephen Colbert when addressing the House Judiciary Subcommittee in September 2010.

A contradiction that over the next three nights, we'll try to explain and will hopefully open up the local dialogue of the plight of migrant workers in Acadiana.

Immigrant workers in America, has been a constant topic for lawmakers and news media. According to current immigration laws, it is up to the federal government to enforce immigration laws and deport illegal immigrants but recent state bills hope to change that.

"We don't have any law because no one is enforcing it. Our federal government has failed us," says Louisiana State Representative Joe Harrison.

Bringing the issue to the forefront is controversial Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona and Louisiana Bill 1205 which was written by Louisiana State Representative Joe Harrison because he believes local agencies should have the authority to arrest, detain and prosecute illegal immigrants.

"Our local law enforcement, our state law enforcement, our federal law enforcement people are really kind of fearful to enforce the laws," Rep. Joe Harrison.

Harrison says the bill is intended to crack down on illegal immigrants but critics, such as Louisiana ACLU Director, Marjorie Esman, say the bill also encourages racial profiling.

"We know that people are stopped more often if they look to be foreign. Whatever that means. Somebody has brown skin. Somebody has an appearance that an officer might think makes them an immigrant they get stopped more frequently," says Esman.

"I think that a lot of people are afraid. They look around and the see there's people working that don't speak English and those people who observe that, conclude that they are undocumented and taking a job away from a citizen....What I would advise people to do is get the facts," UC Davis Law Professor, Dr. Bill O. Hing.

One of the largest categories of legal migrant workers have H-2A visas for temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs. Louisiana has the 2nd highest number of H-2A workers in the nation. Second only to North Carolina. That's more H-2A migrant workers than California and even more than Texas. Knowing the facts, is important to the people of Louisiana and vital to our economy.

As legal H-2A workers, migrant workers are paid adverse wages set forth by the Labor Standards Act and vary by state. In addition, employers are also required to provide a fair work climate for immigrant and U.S. workers alike.

"They're not getting paid less than Americans. They're just willing to do these jobs that Americans just won't do. But especially farm workers. That's rough. It's seasonal. They're working ten hour days seven days a week. It's rough work, out in the sun. Eek. And they'll do it. Gladly," says Baton Rouge Immigration Lawyer, Jeri Ann H. Flynn.

With over 6,600 H-2A's working in Louisiana legally, a number that's only expected to grow, Louisiana's agricultural industry and economy are hinged on these migrant workers. Tomorrow night we'll take you into the sugar cane fields of Acadiana where farmers employ nearly 2,000 H-2A workers.

-Written and Produced by Kate Durio

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