Undocumented migrants in the US play a critical role in producing the food we put on our tables —yet they face disproportionately high rates of food insecurity themselves.
This past week, the Biden administration announced that it would cap the number of incoming refugees for the 2021 fiscal year to 15,000, reneging on a campaign promise to raise that number to 60,000, and instead, matching the “historically low” number set by the Trump administration. Although President Biden has since pledged to raise that cap after receiving backlash from the public and fellow politicians alike, he has not committed to a set amount and will wait till mid-May to release a new figure.
Immigration restrictions force migrants to seek alternative routes to enter the US, often doing so without documents, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and without the same government protections afforded to regularized residents and citizens. Food security is critical for the health outcomes of all families everywhere, and this is no different for undocumented migrants. However, food is also uniquely central to their experience, not just for health outcomes but for opportunities to earn a living as well.
The Department of Agriculture estimates that over 50% of farmworkers in the US are undocumented, meaning over a million of them contribute to providing food for not just the grocery stores that their fellow Americans shop in, but also for global supply chains. This makes them essential workers for the US economy.
Unfortunately, many undocumented migrants do not have enough food on the table for themselves and their families. One study found that 50-65% of undocumented migrant farmworkers in the United States faced food insecurity, while other studies have found this figure to be as high as 82%. Families with children were the most likely to be food insecure. Overall, 14% of the US general population faces food insecurity— over 3 times less than undocumented farmworkers.
We recognize that even 1% of the population facing food insecurity is too high. In our society’s efforts to eradicate food insecurity and ensure that people do not have to face the challenges that come with it, we must recognize that groups like undocumented farmworkers are particularly vulnerable.
There are various reasons specific to undocumented farmworkers’ situations that contribute to a disproportionately higher vulnerability of being food insecure. Because they are low-income and work in rural areas, workers may face a lack of access to transportation which can act as a barrier to obtaining food. In addition to this, a lack of legal status can also lead to compounding factors that cause food insecurity. It allows for greater exploitation of labor, which is manifested in lower wages, and means that food becomes less affordable for farmworkers and their families. Additionally, undocumented farmworkers are often excluded from government-provided food assistance programs (such as SNAP) due to their lack of legal status. This diminishes their safety net and available alternatives when their meager wages are not enough to put food on the table.
These challenges that result in higher rates of food insecurity pose risks to the health of undocumented migrant farmworker’s families and their fundamental right to having their basic needs met. There must be focused efforts to address the structural issues that perpetuate this inequality and to provide the resources needed by such communities.
We can begin by raising caps on legal immigration into the US and creating more accessible pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants that help put food on our tables every day. Introduced in congress earlier this year, The US Citizenship Act would create a path for undocumented migrants to gain legal status and eventually citizenship. The bill also includes stipulations that would strengthen labor protections for migrants and seasonal workers, mandating that they receive overtime pay, and increase fines for employers that violate such standards. These policy changes would lead to higher wages for farmworkers, making them more likely to be able to afford food, while also expanding their access to food assistance programs.
We can begin by raising caps on legal immigration into the US and creating more accessible pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants that help put food on our tables every day.
Another measure the government can take to decrease food insecurity among the families of undocumented migrants is by eliminating barriers that hinder direct access to food assistance programs. For example, although non-citizens are eligible to receive school lunches, applications ask for social security numbers. This can discourage undocumented parents from applying out of fear their lack of legal status may become visible to ICE officials. By eliminating this request and providing more transparent information to undocumented migrants on how they may be eligible for such programs, the US government can ensure fewer children go hungry.
These proposals will not only decrease the vulnerability of undocumented migrants and increase food accessibility. Studies have demonstrated that the benefits from granting legal status and citizenship to undocumented migrants include higher GDP, personal income, and tax revenue gains for the US as a whole. Aforementioned policies have the backing of the American people, with a poll showing that a majority (68%) support creating pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants. Politicians like President Biden can set a new course for future US immigration policy, and his administration’s decisions will have real impacts on the food security of millions of families. Significant change will require policy action at different levels of government and across a variety of sectors.
Million Meals Mission raises awareness about food insecurity and provides meals to food insecure communities around the world. By supporting us, you can help us provide nutritious meals to countless people in need!