Immigration Food Fights
Challenging Borders and Bridging Social Boundaries
Given the prevalence of immigrants in California, their prominent role as workers in the food system, and their visible resistance to social marginalization, immigration conjunctures directly shape all three of my cases. This suggests the need for strategies that can dismantle social boundaries to deepen multiracial and multiethnic food justice coalitions. California has more immigrants than any other state in the United States. More than ten million immigrants live in the state and represent almost 30 percent of the population. A little more than 50 percent of the foreign-born population comes from Latin America, mostly from Mexico. Although most immigrants are documented residents, a sizable minority, 25 percent, are undocumented. The experiences of immigrants and native residents in California have broad implications. Seven million people live in border counties, thirteen million reside within sixty-two miles, and a whopping seventy million are residents of border states. The food system thrives on these conditions; foreign-born workers account for 20 percent of all food-chain workers, and in sectors like farming, scholars estimate undocumented farmworkers account for between 25 and 50 percent of the workforce. Undocumented workers are also highly exploited. They are more likely to be harassed, abused, and exposed to dangerous workplace conditions; receive low-wages; and experience wage theft.
The racialized social boundaries in the food system in the United States go back to settlers’ expropriation of indigenous land and agriculture’s colonization of people and nature as it proceeded west. During roughly the same period, an estimated 388,000 Africans were sold into the plantation economy of slavery. Lest whites have to perform the most arduous labor, the food system became reliant on an ethnic succession of immigrant workers until the very present. We disregard this history and its consequences for achieving food justice at our own peril. Ignorance is acquiescence to white supremacy and the exploitation of foreign-born workers through practices of “imported colonialism.” Whites have driven a de facto system of segregation that uses guest farmworker programs to import racialized foreign workers and then legally and socially exclude them from the polity. The historical antecedents producing these boundaries echo on in many of the daily food politics of the food movement, such as preferences for ecological values or white farm imaginaries that ignore racialized immigrant farmworkers. One of the major food justice political projects must be to confront institutional racism and xenophobia that excludes and demonizes immigrants.
The task of dismantling social boundaries in the food system mirrors other social movements that navigate the complex process of building solidarity. Throughout the left in the United States, there is greater awareness of how identity influences the experience of oppression and movement participation. While there was an era when movements fought for “civil rights” for entire categories of people, like blacks, women, gays, and lesbians, we now live in a time of increased sensitivity to the failure of grand narratives to capture nuance. There is also more focus on individual and collective complicity, however unintentional, with systems of oppression. Take the Black Lives Matter movement, which was started by queer black women. Although mainstream attention focuses most on the dehumanization of black men at the hands of white police officers, the creators of Black Lives Matter have pushed the movement to adopt intersectional lenses. It is not just that generalized black lives matter. How particular blacks experience racism matters, whether they are women, queer, trans, disabled, or undocumented. Conversely, radical politics must honor specific needs and inequities and take measures to leverage privileges to intervene in these inequities. Challenging oppressive social boundaries to achieve equitable social relations requires reflexivity and a commitment to adjusting strategies.
Any attempt to transform the food system is entangled in a system of violence that produces and maintains differences based on citizenship. Social boundaries initially produced through settler state colonialism, ecocide, genocide, militarism, and institutional racism can continue to have detrimental effects through both active and passive forms of maintenance. As this pertains to immigration, attention to the conjunctures in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland shows how difficult it is to develop a food politics that can overcome the divisiveness of citizenship. In each city, organic farming and local food activists navigate immigration within the contradiction between the status of undocumented Latinx immigrants and the food system’s reliance on exploitable and deportable labor. Moreover, the view of immigration taken by San Diego Roots, UFCW 770, and Planting Justice is refracted through their demographic makeup, mission, geography, and food system entry point. I focus on social boundaries to highlight the discursive and practical opportunities to disrupt these historical trends. By comparing food politics in different contexts, I conclude that resisting the supposed essential social difference assumed by white supremacist and xenophobic notions of exclusivity and superiority is central to reimagining food justice. Challenging social boundaries opens the possibility for a food politics opposed to borders and the detrimental impact they impose on people, many of whom end up working in the food system.
Organic Farming, Immigrants, and the U.S.–Mexico Border
At Wild Willow Farm, San Diego Roots, like hundreds of organizations and farms around the United States, engages in the important work of educating a new generation of organic farmers and revaluing labor practices with nonwage forms of exchange. Because the farm sits along the U.S.–Mexico border, it offers the opportunity to reflect on the contradictions of farming amid divisions between farmers and farmworkers, organic and conventional, and eaters and workers. This location exemplifies the connection between conceptual distinctions people make to categorize groups and their social consequences for all farms, whether or not they directly rely on immigrant labor. It also offers a visceral reminder for many organic farming and local food activists of the need to transcend the associated social boundaries. Yet the racialized and militarized nature of the space creates obstacles. First, activists navigate typical stereotypes about immigrant farmworkers. Second, activists witness the militarization of the border and the monitoring of migrant bodies. This contrasts the ethnoracial, class, and citizenship privileges they are afforded farming on the U.S. side of the border. Together these factors inhibit a food politics capable of breaking down social boundaries and reforming labor laws to protect migrant farmworkers and immigrants from detention and deportation.
Not only is California agriculture reliant on a racialized workforce that devalues labor in order to shuffle more capital into the hands of growers, but also it benefits from a dehumanizing immigration and surveillance regime. Based on manufacturing fear over things like crime, terrorism, and the economy, the law enforcement arm of the state frames foreign nationals, especially those from Latin America, as a threat. In a post-9/11 context, the state relies heavily on military and security methods to monitor and control these populations. The combination of militarized surveillance practices and threat narratives produces social boundaries. Therefore, in San Diego, which boosters refer to as “America’s Finest City,” immigrants remain invisible to many whites and those whose families have been in the United States for many generations. This hiddenness is not just optical or experiential. Invisibility is ideological and produced through racialized discursive strategies that turn immigrants into an unknowable other subject to society’s desire for cheap labor.
Attention to how San Diego Roots activists internalized and maintained social boundaries reveals the significance of stereotypes to divide native organic farmers from foreign immigrant farmworkers. One of the consistent views was economic marginalization is not ideal, but new immigrants are working through the typical occupational hierarchy to achieve economic prosperity like immigrants before them. This operated through a few key racialized perspectives. First, the problems farmworkers experience are intractable. Second, higher labor costs equate with higher food costs, which entails the economic precariousness of farmworkers. Third, farmworkers undertake backbreaking work most American citizens are unwilling to perform.
Although many farm-school participants, staff and board members, and volunteers recognized migration has economic and political drivers, they considered this a typical condition in California agriculture. In conjunction with what scholars have found, I was told free trade agreements, guest farmworker programs, and the industrialization of farming in Mexico and Central America have pushed and pulled migrants northward. Then I always heard the caveat that the history of California agriculture is a story of one ethnic group replacing another one in search of better opportunities. These two narrative threads support each other. Underlying them both is the assumption the United States is a desirable place to migrate to, which dovetails with the assimilationist ideology of the United States as a “melting pot” and the belief in an “American dream” where people are economically free to choose their destiny. The problems associated with immigration are therefore intractable. Historical path dependencies, political and economic expedience, and the abstract liberal belief of “freedom of choice” erect barriers to solidarity. Together these beliefs located social change outside of the control of San Diego Roots, which instead must stay afloat in a competitive food movement nonprofit sector.
Sustaining these perspectives was the narrative that cheap labor is required for affordable food. A white organic farmer named Wayne asserted, “I know that if we didn’t have those workers here, our local agriculture industry would come to a screeching halt and food prices would skyrocket. We would have to import stuff from farther away and increase food costs like crazy.” Such statements exaggerate the impact of increasing the wages of farmworkers and overlook the economic incentive citizens might have were the remuneration adequate to the arduous task of farming. Farmers receive a small share of every retail dollar for the fruits and vegetables they produce, about 30 percent, and a third of this pays for farmworkers. Philip Martin, a labor economist who focuses on farmworkers and immigration, found in 2016 that a 47 percent increase in farmworkers’ wages to $15 an hour would pull farmworkers out of poverty and translate to consumers spending on average about $20 a year more on fresh fruits and vegetables. And as Julie Guthman discovered in her study of organic agriculture in California, weak labor laws contribute to keeping farms afloat by allowing them to deflate labor costs and turn a greater profit through the valorization of their organic products.
Although perceptions of social boundaries varied, there was the common racialized sentiment that immigrant farmworkers need less. A white unpaid staff member named Amber replicated this typical stereotype: “Their quality of life, where they come from, people from Mexico, they have a lower quality, so they don’t need as much.” Racialized self-perceptions supported the projection of immigrants’ presumed needs. Specifically, there were racially coded beliefs that differentiated native-born white San Diegans as unwilling to perform farm work. Sean, a white volunteer at Wild Willow Farm and a chef at a hip local food restaurant, projected a reversal of the ethnic succession in agriculture if food cost more: “If food gets more expensive, then I definitely think we can afford to pay local [i.e., white] people to do it.” Under this scenario, the only way to improve conditions for farmworkers is to pay more for food. This would certainly help. But the sovereignty of consumer choice mandates cheap food and eclipses the legal urgency to protect farmworkers or pass laws to prevent the exploitation of immigrants.
In a similar line of reasoning, some people at San Diego Roots normalized the plight of immigrant farmworkers, while market pressures and neoliberal subjectivities of individuality and personal responsibility justified inaction. Reflecting the slow transition the organization was going through in 2012 to become economically stable, a white board member named Sharon compared this to the experience of being an immigrant farmworker: “We’re still struggling to make ends meet every month. It’s the same thing that the migrant workers are facing. . . . They can’t be really thinking about too much more.” Sharon made this comparison to demonstrate economics comes before social solidarity. When I asked later whether the organization should support immigrant farmworkers, she replied she would like to see more social interactions that increase cultural exchange: “It’d be good to be a part of that community, educating everyone around us, having cross-cultural events where we can go to some of the farms that are across the border and have relationships with them, learn from the farmers that come across.” Explicit political commitments did not accompany this well-meaning desire for greater social interaction. While the economic pressures San Diego Roots faced are common to food movement nonprofits, there is not a mutually exclusive tradeoff between maintaining financial solvency and finding ways to advocate on behalf of farmworkers. Even as the organization stabilized financially, the focus remained on sustainable living, organic farming, and fostering beginner farmers despite the glaring contradictions of working along the U.S.–Mexico border.
Border Militarization and Monitoring Migrants
On one of the first days I interned at Wild Willow Farm, a Border Patrol agent in an SUV drove up and interrupted a conversation I was having with a few people from San Diego Roots: “Have you seen anyone run through here?” We all responded, “No.” After he drove away, Alan, a white founding member of San Diego Roots, quipped, “This is the nature of working right on the border.” He followed up with, “You have to defend ‘national security,’” as he made air quotes. He then pointed to the close imposing wall running east-west along the border for as far as the eye could see. Later in the morning, I mentioned to Titus what happened. He saw the person in question crossing the border and running through the farm. Upset with the Border Patrol, he replied, “Those guys are assholes.” Janelle, who was also at the farm all the time, agreed: “Fuck Border Patrol.” Titus then noted that a few days prior he had found a fresh pair of clothes left behind some bushes to aid migrants; he often tried to leave out food. As we harvested tomatoes, reflecting on the morning events, helicopters flew overhead looking for border crossers.
The militarized and surveilled feel of Wild Willow Farm juxtaposed how San Diego Roots used the farm to demonstrate the merits of organic farming and build community. Although many participants recognized the inequity of the ease with which they could farm and the travails of immigrant farmworkers, I rarely heard of any policy prescriptions or action plans. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the prevalent military culture within San Diego, which some of my interviewees proposed produces feelings of insecurity that stymie resistance to border militarization. As Jayla, a black San Diego activist and scholar working in food politics, explained, “You don’t recognize the fact that people feel a daily insecurity about the border. . . . For a lot of the people here that’s because they may not be documented . . . [and] really feel the impact of the border policing. We have a strong military presence here. . . . There are people . . . very concerned with using that lens of homeland security and military defense to how we build our economy.” Despite the influence of the military, border enforcement, and defense industry, the perception of people at San Diego Roots was that border crossers face the greatest threat. Raquel, a Latina former staff member who lived on the U.S. side of the border for years, noted empathically, “I see the Border Patrol with their semi-automatic weapons and the new fence going up. We hear the rustling in the bushes . . . and people are crossing this heavily militarized area. . . . You feel kind of caught in the middle of . . . a crime almost. . . . But at the same time, I’m empathetic.” The implication here is that the social boundaries produced by the border reinforce the symbolic differences of citizenship and the legal risks of resisting its militarization.
A prominent military and immigration enforcement regime contributed to a politics of quiescence. Speaking to this reality, Melissa, reflected, “Politics in San Diego is interesting because it’s not something [border issues] that people engage in. . . . Especially people in the progressive community working on food issues, you know, tend to not dwell on that stuff.” Her comments illuminate how organic farming and local food activists bracketed social problems related to immigration and the border to deemphasize their significance and foreclose on taking action. Merging with this hesitance was the perceived tendency in San Diego for people to avoid confrontation over controversial topics. Referring to her experience trying to have conversations about capitalism and institutional racism, Jayla told me, “If you’re really vociferous about your opinions either you’re a quack, you know, or you have to either go running or surfing or something.” The policing of acceptable ideas and topics emulates the regulation of bodies and the default security framework looming over the city’s social movements. These conditions even manifest in the built environment at Wild Willow Farm in the form of fake closed-circuit surveillance cameras that pepper the tool shed, Quonset hut, mobile office, and outdoor kitchen and barn. Ostensibly, the cameras dissuade potential burglars, but they also notify farm visitors and border crossers alike that they are under scrutiny.
Mobility Privilege amid Racialized Restrictions
Wild Willow Farm is embedded in ethnoracial and economic relations stratified along lines of human mobility and segregation in San Diego. In a collection of oral histories by Kelly Mayhew in a book highlighting the voices of nonvacationland San Diego, an undocumented college student from Mexico named Geraldo discloses, “My people don’t tend to mingle with the first-class citizens. I don’t see a lot of my people going to the theater, or going to nice restaurants. Why? There are not a lot of us who have the careers that would allow us to do these things.” While white and middle- to upper-middle-class San Diegans usually experience greater mobility privilege than Geraldo, they hold negative views of Tijuana, and seldom cross the border. A poll conducted in 2003 found those with unfavorable perceptions of Tijuana rarely, if ever visit, and a majority would like more restrictive border policies or are content with current enforcement standards. Latinx residents, on the other hand, more frequently visit and overwhelmingly hold positive perceptions of Tijuana. The differences in mobility reflect some of the history of xenophobia in San Diego that trickled into the larger California polity in the 1990s. Racist language and policy have long informed white San Diegans’ relationship to their Mexican neighbors. This intensified after Pete Wilson, the former San Diego mayor and California governor, relied on the “Latino threat narrative” to argue that “illegals” were receiving far too many state resources during a Southern California recession. Pete Wilson also supported the passage of Proposition 187, which restricted undocumented immigrants from receiving public education, health care, and other social services. Although the courts ultimately deemed the proposition unconstitutional, the underlying sentiments inform how white San Diegans imagine the border, which affects the movement of both documented and undocumented immigrants.
Exacerbating some of these tensions in October of 2007 were some of the largest wildfires in San Diego history. While the mandatory evacuations and disaster relief efforts were largely compassionate, a racist undercurrent affected many Latinx residents and undocumented farmworkers. First, Latinx evacuees at relief centers were accused of stealing donated items and as a result faced deportation by Border Patrol. Second, police officers monitored evacuation zones by arbitrarily detaining and requesting identification. Without identification, people faced deportation. Third, many farmworkers working in mandatory evacuation zones also lived in precarious housing in nearby canyons. Wayne criticized these living conditions as inhumane: “The so-called housing they provide, they say, ‘You can stay in that canyon right there, and here are some blue tarps. Just don’t burn the place down when you cook all your food there in the canyon. Use the bottom end of the canyon as your latrine.’” While farmworkers were not blamed for these fires, Wayne’s comment recognizes their marginalized social status; they did not receive relief services. Even one of the oldest and well-regarded organic farms, Be Wise Ranch, forced workers to toil in hazardous air quality in order to save the strawberry crop. Most farmworkers stayed for fear of job loss or deportation by Border Patrol.
The racialized restrictions placed on immigrants and farmworkers contrast starkly with the mobility privilege of those who travel to the border to connect with nature at Wild Willow Farm. Many people who otherwise had little experience farming idealized small-scale farming, which downplayed the privilege of being able to experience the natural beauty of the Tijuana River Estuary. For example, participants at monthly potlucks when I attended the farm school consisted primarily of people driving from Central San Diego to see an organic farm and share in the joys of eating local food. Similarly, most interns and students at the farm school drove from other parts of San Diego County. Although whites made up only 28 percent of the population in Central San Diego and 22 percent in the South Bay, these potluck-goers and interns were largely white. Some people minimized these politics of racial representation. A white staff member named Pam offered the following color-blind analysis: “I saw this picture of a religious family praying, saying, ‘Thank you God for the food,’ and underneath it this Mexican farmer says, ‘De nada’ like ‘You’re welcome.’ . . . I’m kind of touchy when it comes to racial classification because there’s just so much built around it. . . . I accept people and just kind of tend to get away from the politics. It’s just a natural response to a lot of negative connotations and racial issues that obviously we all face.” Shutting down discussions on immigration also obscured the privilege associated with whiteness. This manifested in perceptions of farming at Wild Willow Farm, which contradicted the reality faced by most farmworkers in the region. “I like to work happy jobs,” exclaimed a white intern named Amanda. “From what I see working on this farm, sustainability comes into it. It is not work that drains on you . . . [or] damage[s] your body.” Albeit unintentional, the privileging of white bodies that can move through and work in a border zone without fear of reprisal misses an opportunity to compare this to the racialization that undervalues the bodies of immigrant farmworkers.
Not only are Wild Willow Farm and many other surrounding farms located in an ecologically diverse and agriculturally fertile riparian zone; they sit in a demarcated zone that is highly significant for national security. After 9/11, an “enforcement first” strategy led to border enforcement agencies receiving a massive increase in funding to police borders and criminalize immigrant communities. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, funding for these agencies doubled from $6.2 billion to $12.5 billion between 2002 and 2006, and by 2012, the funding grew by another 43 percent. Specifically, border enforcement received the largest budget increases for that decade, resulting in roughly 3.5 million deportations. Thus, there is a major disparity between how organic farmers and law enforcement view the border zone. For farmers I spoke with, this contrast revealed something about the stratification of the freedom of movement for different groups. A neighboring farmer, commenting on the constant buzz of helicopters from the nearby U.S. Navy helicopter training ground, and the overwhelming Border Patrol presence, insisted, “That protection feels excessive.” Instead, “We just want to grow food to feed people. . . . We want to learn the river; see where it rushes and where it is calm. I want to know the names of the plants and trees and shrubs. Which six animals left their paw prints in the mud?” Surveillance produced a desire for transcendence. Cory, a farmer who used to work on that farm and at Wild Willow Farm, reasoned, “Borders in the environment don’t exist. . . . We have birds that migrate from Mexico to our side. We have squirrels that climb through . . . they also go back the other way. Working with nature you start to realize that borders are this man-made thing . . . in many ways an illusion.” Yet he later contradicted the idea that borders are an illusion: “Some of them [Mexican farmworkers] would drive across the border every day to come work at the farm [but when] . . . their visas expire, were not allowed to come back.” Herein lays the crux of the problem. These desires to dissolve borders and increase freedom of movement fail to translate into practices that resist ethnoracial and citizenship divisions.
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Local food activists and organic farmers working along the U.S.–Mexico border face many obstacles. Capital, people, power, privilege, and non–human nature flow unevenly across this territorial boundary, which throws into stark relief the competing uses and views of the space. Given that San Diego Roots is confronted with the world’s largest military and security apparatus, and its concomitant effects on the lives of immigrants and agriculture, it is easy to see why the organization might not add solving these problems to its mission. However, I occasionally heard and witnessed acts of solidarity with crossers, such as Titus, who used to leave food and clothes in some of the neighboring willow groves. I also never heard anyone express sympathy with the position of Border Patrol agents or other law enforcement agencies. As Wayne once retorted, after helicopters briefly drowned out his organic farming workshop, “They come out here to see what homeland security actually looks like: food security. You are all dangerous people.” Underneath this antipathy is a frustration with the political mandates driving the militarization of the border. But organic farmers are not enough of a threat to the state to turn the border region into a verdant space with no social boundaries between themselves and immigrants.
What the experience of San Diego Roots illustrates is that practicing food justice in the context of immigration conjunctures cannot simply entail creating alternatives to a food system viewed as undesirable given that powerful actors in the food system exploit ethnoracial and citizenship differences for profit. The food movement faces a choice of whether or not to branch out beyond the confines of the typical ecologically driven food politics, such as organic farming. These decisions offer insight into the difference between what food justice requires, such as the dissolution of divisive social boundaries that perpetuate inequities, and the role that local context plays in influencing the perspectives behind activists’ food politics. For comparison, I now turn to how organizers in Los Angeles and Oakland conceive of their role in supporting immigrant rights and their strategies for confronting social boundaries.
Demographics, Immigrant Rights, and Food-Chain Workers in Los Angeles
A few hours up the coast in Los Angeles, UFCW 770 is engaged in labor politics at the intersection of immigration-driven demographic shifts and the grocery retail and food-processing sectors. According to recent statistics, immigrants account for 35 percent of Los Angeles County’s population, 53 percent hailing from Mexico, El Salvador, or Guatemala (41, 7, and 5 percent, respectively). Undocumented Latinx adults account for 27 percent of these people. In response, there is a proliferation of grocery chains catering to the city’s large Latinx population. Most of these are not unionized. Many exploit undocumented workers. These abuses are widespread; Latinx people make up 46 percent of grocery workers in California, 22 percent of whom are foreign born. Food processing, which includes meatpacking, also relies on a high concentration of Latinx immigrants. According to low estimates, at least a third of the workforce is foreign born and Latinx. Historically, many of these workers are undocumented. As the prominent rural sociologist William Heffernan sharply put it, “Employers can take advantage of these people because they can threaten to send them back. . . . It’s the race to the bottom. . . . Companies started breaking the unions, moving the plants to rural areas and hiring immigrants a long time ago.” Los Angeles, then, is a hotbed for organizing Latinx immigrants because the business community would like to diminish the influence of labor unions. Were the business community to succeed, the result for immigrants would be dire. Immigrants are integrated culturally into the fabric of the city, but their economic standing is weak. They have low access to affordable housing and low homeownership rates, low wages and high levels of poverty, and inadequate workforce preparation. This economic precariousness stems from structural disadvantages that come with immigrating to a new place and lacking access to politically powerful or savvy social networks that can protect against prejudice and discrimination by receiving communities. Therefore, supporting immigrant workers is important strategically for UFCW 770. To ignore immigration would undermine the growth potential of the union and alienate other progressive allies dedicated to the human rights of immigrants.
Despite the historic immigrant composition of the working class and immigrants’ significance to building labor power, the labor movement in the United States has repeatedly failed to bridge ethnoracial and citizenship divisions to expand unionization. In fact, labor union leaders since the late 1800s have appealed to racist and nativist sentiments to claim immigrants are “unorganizable.” While this has consistently proven to be false, the labor movement has at times strategically demonized new immigrant groups as a threat to preserve the victories of previous generations. Ironically, after European immigrants were integrated into labor unions and assimilated into American society, they became white, which placed them atop the racial hierarchy. They also became labor leaders who oversaw the rapid decline in union membership. This presented the labor movement with the dilemma of how to proceed with mobilizing the working class. Once Latinx workers started entering the labor market in larger numbers in the 1980s, the economy was undergoing major neoliberal restructuring, the working class was comparably weaker, and Latinx immigrants were treated like pariahs for taking away low-wage jobs and stagnating wages. As the labor movement started to accept the arrival of neoliberalism and mass immigration, it turned away from restrictionist policies and toward policies that provided legal work opportunities and pathways to citizenship. It turns out that Latinx documented and undocumented immigrants want to join labor unions and may in fact be more likely than native-born whites to organize and develop the collective power necessary to advance their interests.
Several major political opportunities have helped the labor movement to ally with the immigrant rights movement. In 1994, the California labor movement worked with a broad coalition against Proposition 187, a proposed ballot initiative targeting immigrants backed by Republican governor Pete Wilson. “We could not look away,” asserted Mark. He added, “Electorally, we knew we had to have numbers of people vote against it who were not a part of the labor movement. . . . We went deep into the community of those who’ve immigrated or relatives who immigrated.” In addition to this work, there was one of the largest mass protests in California to date, where roughly one hundred thousand people marched in opposition to this ballot initiative. One of the unintended consequences of Proposition 187 was that it catalyzed an immigrant rights movement and the rise of Latinx voices within the labor movement. In 1996, the growing power of Latinx communities was seen in the election of its first-ever representative, Miguel Contreras, to head the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Shifts in ideology and leadership at local levels foreshadowed nationwide changes. In 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed its policy positions to support a legal process that provides amnesty to undocumented immigrants and dispute laws that sanction employers who hire undocumented people. This pragmatic shift, based in the belief that current laws put immigrant workers in precarious positions and that immigrants could help prevent the decline in union membership, began at the grass roots in places like Los Angeles but became a movement-wide position. It was no surprise, then, when the labor movement supported the 2006 nationwide protests against the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act. The bill sought to increase border militarization and the criminalization of undocumented immigrants and those offering them assistance. These mass mobilizations, their concomitant activists and organizations, and the increased participation in electoral politics helped launch the current undocumented youth–led DREAMers movement. Correctly reading the conjuncture back in 1994, President Ricardo Icaza of UFCW 770 wrote in an opinion piece published soon after the march against Proposition 187, “For Latinos, that march . . . was a glimpse into the future. Most marchers were young people who more accurately reflect what Los Angeles is and will increasingly become, youthful and ethnically diverse. . . . Ironically, as more and more of them participate in the political process it will become more difficult for cynical politicians . . . to ride the wave of cultural and racial backlash at the polls.” In this way, UFCW 770 is part of a larger progressive political shift in the region shaped by immigrants’ visions of economic and social justice. Conflicts over immigration and the economy continue, but organized labor now recognizes the importance of addressing the plight of immigrants for building broader and more powerful social movements.
There are similar implications for the conceptualization and practice of food justice. Labor organizers and workers show how working-class people and progressive social movements have greater power when they enlarge their base by fighting alongside those marginalized due to their foreign-born status. Expanding the vision of food justice to work across social boundaries can shore up the strength of the food movement with a broader base from which to demand the elimination of social inequities. An explicit commitment to these struggles increases the likelihood of successfully navigating the impediments that come with confronting the racialization of immigrants. How UFCW 770 and its allies grapple with these circumstances suggests that there is a strategic significance and moral imperative to deviate from typical urban food politics.
Building Solidarity with Immigrants through Multiracial Organizing
Two of the major decisions a social movement faces are whom to recruit and whether to branch into new contentious arenas. The labor movement historically views its role as the vanguard for the working class. This has led unions to ignore fractious identity politics. But given that ethnoracial, gender, and sexual identity, to only name a few, intersect with class position and occupation, the experience of labor is uneven. As waves of civil rights movements in the United States have wrestled with the politics of recognition within the polity, they at the same time have fought for equitable participation and remuneration in the economy. Although multiracial organizing is now central to the success of UFCW 770, historically, the union is part of a labor movement that, as Diego, a Latino organizer, recounted, “negotiated our way out of jobs [and] . . . existed in a vacuum, and because of that we have existed our way into extinction.” Given that unions have lost millions of members over the last five decades, Diego continued that in order to transcend the micro-concerns of unions such as work breaks and minimum wages, “we had to go back and say, ‘We stand for immigrants and immigrant’s rights, whether the workers are documented or undocumented . . . for racial equality [and] . . . that we believe a healthy workplace with healthy workers that have living-wage jobs produces a product that is better for consumers.’” This new angle is not just about responding to demographic changes; it is tied to addressing the political demands made by immigrant rights’ activists and connecting this to eaters, who otherwise overlook the experiences of these workers.
The strategic emphasis on ethnoracial identity and class depend on the campaign, but racial and economic justice are mutually constitutive. From my conversations with UFCW 770’s community partners and political allies, I gathered that there is a shared analysis of the problem based in a historical understanding of ethnoracial relations in the United States and the food system. As Lillian, an organizer with Food Chain Workers Alliance and an ally of UFCW 770, observed, these groups work in “the lower-paid jobs in the food system and have lower access to healthy and affordable food. . . . It’s interconnected. It is structural racism. That is how the food system was built, on the backs of slaves and exploiting Native Americans, and it’s still exploiting people of color and immigrants.” Of equal importance was that many communities of color experience this legacy in the form of economic hardships, which compels fighting on the front lines for better working conditions. “Many of them are not going to go to school and need a quality job,” asserted Jill. “They are going to start families early and need . . . upward mobility. . . . It’s not just about anonymous workers. . . . A lot of the workers who come to our rallies and do this work are from those communities.”
With a large and growing Los Angeles Latinx community, the Latinx supermarket sector has expanded. While UFCW 770 and some of its partners, such as LAANE, prioritized the interests of working-class communities of color, they did not blindly accept poor labor practices just because an immigrant ethnic group sold culturally appropriate food. Some of the worst labor practices occur in Latinx grocery chains. From Jill’s research, she found that “a lot of ethnic markets have flourished in low-income areas . . . but many of them are not unionized. You are seeing a huge expansion of them since LA is becoming more and more diverse. Most of those stores don’t have standards for their workers.” From what I was told, many employers pay undocumented workers under the table, usually below minimum wage. The acceleration of these trends and Latinx grocery chains’ resistance to unions have spurred labor organizers to wage major campaigns that deploy a range of tactics.
The most visible campaign to date targets the grocery chain El Super. El Super acquired seven unionized stores (all other El Super stores are nonunion) when they bought out Gigante in 2008. The trouble began when the four Southern California UFCW locals, representing about six hundred workers, attempted to renegotiate their contract when it expired in 2013. These negotiations floundered, and so these UFCW locals began a consumer boycott on December 20, 2014, after working without a union contract for over a year. Workers demanded better remuneration and working conditions only to have El Super try to convince union members to vote out the union. Ultimately, workers took a vote on whether to stay in the union, where more than 90 percent of eligible workers voted three to one to stay with UFCW. Increasing protests, civil disobedience, public opposition, support from major labor organizations and leaders such as the Los Angeles Federation of Labor and the United Farm Workers veteran Dolores Huerta, and financial losses have pressured El Super to take controversial measures. It fired Fermin Rodriguez, a cashier and union leader who had worked for El Super for nine years. UFCW filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which ruled that El Super violated federal law and had to rehire Mr. Rodriguez. With his resolve deepened after going back to work, he made the following statement: “For more than two years, my coworkers and I have been fighting to win a 40-hour guarantee for full-time workers, adequate paid sick leave, seniority protections, fair wages, affordable health benefits, the right to organize without retaliation, and respect. We wanted to achieve a fair contract at the bargaining table without a strike, but this company persists in unlawful conduct denying us of our rights under federal law. El Super only responds to direct pressure. El Super workers will not tolerate any more of the company’s illegal behavior.” Although El Super returned to bargaining in August of 2015, the union did not receive company information that it believed was necessary to bargain for a fair contract. Therefore, the union continued to pressure the company by bringing more unfair labor practice claims before the NLRB. As a result, in April of 2016, El Super was ordered to pay back wages to almost 550 current and former employees.
This campaign against El Super shows how a labor union can mobilize workers and the public against a company with ties both to the United States (it is managed by the Paramount, California, Bodega Latina Corp.) and Mexico (Grupo Comercial Chedraui owns an 81 percent share of California Bodega Latina Corp.). The implication is that at a local level, labor unions and their community supporters can intervene to prevent companies from exploiting immigrant communities. Nowhere is this more obvious than in charges brought by UFCW 770; LAANE; Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research; and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo labor federation in Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The NAFTA charges were brought against Chedraui for its “sham unions” in Mexico that opponents claim serve the interests of management over unions. The OECD complaint against El Super called for an end to the company’s campaign against workers and UFCW, and in this way mirrored the union’s efforts in the United States to leverage the NLRB. Labor organizers used these transnational governance systems to illuminate anti-union practices and force the company to end its anti-union retaliation and to negotiate in good faith.
These immigrant-focused campaigns raise some questions about the complicated overlap between conjunctures. How do labor organizers understand citizenship and immigration status in relation to occupational status? Is a group’s shared class ultimately more important? While strategizing can begin with the desire to improve labor practices in an industry, winning over immigrants requires investment in their workplaces and neighborhoods. On the one hand, Jae proposed, “If one community has good working conditions, why shouldn’t other communities have it? That is what binds us all together.” When UFCW 770 confronted exploitative Latinx supermarket chains, it established trust in the working-class Latinx community. On the other hand, there was a reflexive understanding of the importance of people from similar backgrounds involving themselves in and leading the organizing. As Dave contended, “We can’t just have a white male leadership at the top and expect rank-and-file workers who are people of color and women to throw their blood, sweat, and tears behind the union’s program. . . . They have to believe by doing the work [that] . . . there is a path to leadership.” There need to be mechanisms to integrate the interests of those marginalized due to their foreign-born status. Dave proceeded, “They have to see it being directly connected to their lives.” Representing the concerns of Latinx immigrant communities makes UFCW 770 a part of the immigrant rights movement.
Immigrant Organizing in the Face of Deportability
Despite the dangerous and economically marginal conditions faced by food-chain workers, activating these workers is difficult because many are non-English-speaking immigrants; they are easier to exploit and harder for native English-speaking white society to identify with. Moreover, many legal tools, like employer sanctions and systems like E-Verify and I-9, dissuade employers from hiring undocumented workers. Unless unions recognize these distinctions and commit to challenging discriminatory laws targeting undocumented immigrants, workers are less likely to join union ranks. In succeeding waves of food-chain workers, from Chinese farmworkers and Irish meatpackers to Mexicans and Central Americans now predominating in each of these occupations, companies have increased profits by abusing the precariousness of each group. Without the guest worker programs or amnesty options available to previous generations of farm and food-processing workers, the specter of deportation is real. Yet there is a disjuncture between the constant fear of deportation by undocumented workers and the cautiousness of labor unions to support the immigrant rights of workers. Unions like UFCW 770 want laws to protect immigrants from deportation, but those unions can still fail in how they support immigrant communities and workplaces.
These challenges are apparent in Vernon, an industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles. This city, population 115, is known for its concentration of warehouses; apparel, electronics, furniture, and paper manufacturing; and meatpacking and food-processing plants. With over eighteen hundred businesses, employment exceeds fifty thousand people. UFCW 770 used to enjoy influence in the food-processing sector, which prior to the 1980s represented a large segment of Vernon’s economy. In the late 1970s, there were two packinghouse locals representing roughly thirty thousand workers, but by 1982 when the two locals merged, there were just over ten thousand workers. Following trends in the United States, unionized packinghouses began to decertify or close only to reopen in anti-union cities or countries. There also began an influx of Mexican and Central American immigrants looking for work, while union roles were diminishing rapidly. Attempting to stanch membership loss, workers carried out a series of unsuccessful strikes UFCW 770 never fully recovered from twenty years later. In September of 1985, union members at Farmer John, the largest pig packinghouse on the west coast of the United States, voted to go on strike over medical and pension benefits and promote a boycott of their products such as the Dodger Dog. After already suffering a major defeat in 1982 by agreeing to a two-tier wage system where people performing the same work but who started the job at different times made different wages, the union hoped for a successful strike. Ultimately, the strike failed. Mark, who was a meatpacker at the time, lamented, “Nineteen eighty-five was the worst year for strikes, at least on the West Coast. We had a dozen strikes, three-quarters of a million lost in worked days, five deaths, a number of the plants decertified; some went out of business; contracts were horrible.” By 1986, UFCW 770’s packinghouse division only represented around six thousand workers. Fifteen years later, the division fell into disrepair with fewer than one thousand union members.
Despite the heavy loss of union members, UFCW 770 still recognized the importance of representing food-processing workers. The industry is rife with workplace safety violations, no worker compensation, employer retaliation against workers attempting to unionize, poor labor law enforcement, and abuse of new Latinx immigrants. Commenting on the experience of food-processing workers at the unionized Overhill Farms, a Latino worker and shop steward named Santiago told me many undocumented workers are afraid of standing up for fair labor practices: “The companies don’t want smart people. They want people who do what they are told. No complaining. ‘I’m going to give you one dollar for tomorrow and you are going to start at four and finish at three the next day.’ They say, ‘Yes, boss, okay.’ That’s the kind of people they want.” Even when assertive, many experienced line workers who wanted to work as a lead in some department faced discrimination. According to Santiago, the Human Resources person knew Spanish, but she only wanted English speakers in these positions even if they lacked experience. Yet, with ten to fifteen years of experience, Santiago insisted, “They know the work; they don’t need to speak English; they can read and they have been doing that work for so many years. . . . That’s not right.”
The union is aware many of its members are undocumented or perceived as such and harassed by bosses and law enforcement. Dave stated, “We just can’t depend on our own union membership power to win. We have to be able to tap into the other sources of community power. The places where we organize, a lot of those are led by people of color. It’s an essential precondition for our success.” The union appropriately modified its organizing tactics. Unlike previous campaigns that targeted only Vernon plant workers, UFCW 770 tried to work with groups such as Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles to open and run worker centers. These worker centers represent trends in the “alt-labor” movement to have entities not beholden to labor unions that can independently agitate for worker rights. In addition, because they take the form of community coalitions or nonprofits, they have the flexibility to carry out certain kinds of organizing that unions cannot undertake. As a practical matter, UFCW 770 has limited capacity to support more meatpacking and food-processing workers. Their grocery retail organizing is paramount. It is a growing and stable industry, it makes up a majority of the union membership, and it faces intense race-to-the-bottom pressures from low-wage and anti-union companies. The union leadership distributes resources accordingly. In the food-processing sector, it can organize only one plant at a time. Supporting worker centers is a strategic way to simultaneously incubate labor activism regardless of its influence on union membership. This builds the labor movement’s capacity and broadens the network of labor advocates supporting workers.
Developing new ways to support undocumented immigrants reflects the legal complexities of hiring practices like employee verification. After UFCW 770 achieved a significant membership drive at Farmer John in 2010, there were around 350 workers without legal work documents. The company slowly let these workers go, knowing they wanted union representation. To accomplish this, a new internal policy required all workers to sign a letter stating that their Social Security Number matched their identity. One reason for requiring these letters is that the Social Security Administration occasionally sends out “no match” lists showing discrepancies between names and numbers. Needing work, many undocumented people sign the letters. Employers still hire them, knowing many forge their identities. If undocumented workers ever became a problem for management, there is a pretext for firing them. It is also a way to discourage them from joining unions. Illustrating this reality, Felipe related a story about a woman who worked at Farmer John for eleven years. Management fired her in 2010 during the membership drive. He said that in the process of trying to get her to join the union, “she had one foot in front and one foot backing up, saying, ‘Am I going to get fired today?’ . . . For the last eleven years she was thinking that way. She said, ‘What can I do?’ Exactly, what can we do? . . . As a union, we can’t do anything because she already signed that letter.” The union does not require members to provide their legal status, instead leaving it up to the workers and their employers to navigate those legal channels. As a result, these workers would face their undocumented status alone were it not for other support networks like immigrant rights organizations or legal centers.
One of the most visibly contested examples of labor union weakness in the face of the mass firing of undocumented workers occurred at Overhill Farms in 2009. At the time, Overhill Farms was a $200-million-a-year company providing packaged and processed food for American Airlines, Jenny Craig, Panda Express, and Safeway. After a “desktop raid” by the Internal Revenue Service found mismatches between Social Security numbers and employee names, the company fired 254 workers, over a quarter of the workforce. While the government took no action against the workers, and did not mandate the cooperation of Overhill Farms, the company still fired workers. As thirty-eight-year-old Bohemia Agustiano, a mother of four, seethed, “We killed ourselves on the assembly lines for years; many of us have injuries from repetitive motion. Now we’re worth nothing. We’re out on the streets. This is unjust; no one should be treated this way.” The ire of workers was also directed at UFCW 770. As another fired worker named Erlinda Silerio insisted, “The union should try to stop people from losing their jobs. . . . It should try to get the company to hire us back, and pay compensation for the time we’ve been out. It should communicate with us and keep us informed.” UFCW 770 claimed it supported the workers, but this did not bring back their jobs.
Although UFCW 770 advocates for immigrant rights, workers were upset with the response to this mass firing. UFCW 770 took an institutionally sanctioned route. Despite paying union dues for many years, workers experienced the brunt of a hamstrung union that could only try to dissuade Overhill Farms, file grievances after the fact, and direct workers to social service resources. UFCW 770 opposed the sanctions that led to the firing, but lacked recourse to reinstate the jobs. Because the union could not prevent the exploitation of the deportability of immigrants, workers sought the assistance of the immigrant rights organization Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana to organize numerous protests in front of Overhill Farms. The group was founded in 1951 to defend Latinx immigrants. Hermandad saw an opportunity to support workers by engaging in active resistance. Representing a more radical and grassroots approach to the problem, Hermandad claims, “One of the main objectives of the organization is to organize immigrants into unions, and assist those unions committed to organizing immigrant workers into their union. The organization is also dedicated to assisting immigrants who are already members of a union and are involved in fighting for union democracy and assuring that their union adequately represents them, particularly as this relates to immigration issues that have the potential to undermine the member’s social and economic situation.” Even with this final grassroots push, the fired undocumented workers did not recover their jobs. Instead, many found work in other nonunionized food-processing facilities, while Overhill Farms walked away from the conflict unscathed.
Given similar experiences throughout the United States, unions have fought for major immigration overhaul, especially as the Great Recession harmed Latinx immigrants more than whites. Union proposals vary, but many labor organizers I interviewed agree with Emiliano, a Latino organizer of meatpacking and food-processing workers: “If we don’t get some kind of amnesty or some kind of pathway, then it is always going to be a challenge for unions to organize.” Because companies rely on hidden scare tactics, it is rare for a union to file charges claiming discrimination against undocumented immigrants. Even when unions unearth illegal intimidation tactics, workers may not want to proceed with filing a grievance for fear of retaliation. In the experience of a Latina labor organizer whose father was a union packinghouse worker, Susana declared, “There goes your witness. . . . You think you can try to back them up but they get scared. They do not want to get deported.” The deportability of undocumented workers explains why much of the labor movement now supports a pathway to citizenship. Employers can diminish labor solidarity when workers have different levels of legal protection. Providing citizenship to eight million workers would also be a boon to unions all over the country.
Labor unions also have the capacity to stand up for immigrants who are unwilling or unable to be vocal. There are indications that the Overhill Farms experience inspired reflection within the union. Some UFCW organizers have started to take more direct action. For example, in October 2013 in Washington, D.C., at a major immigration reform march, police arrested four UFCW organizers including Rigo Valdez, who at the time was the director of organizing at UFCW 770. He affirmed, “I was arrested today to stand up for the workers who cannot stand up for themselves. In twenty years of organizing, I have witnessed exploitation of workers because of their immigration status. We can no longer allow the abuse of any workers in our country, and must fight and demand that all of us are treated with dignity and according to our rights. Comprehensive immigration reform is not only morally right, but necessary to guarantee the long term economic and social health of our nation. If our lawmakers will not act, then we will.” These actions mirror the direct actions and protests organized by the DREAMers, an indication that the labor movement is not so ossified that it is incapable of adjusting to the needs of undocumented workers throughout the food system.
Although imperfect, UFCW 770’s approach to immigration is encouraging. It is possible to engage in food politics that expand beyond typical social movement domains by advocating on behalf of those marginalized by their ethnoracial identity and citizenship. This in turn pushes the dialectical development of food justice. Besides UFCW 770’s commitment to economic justice, a commitment to racial justice for immigrants precedes strategies that broaden the pool of potential comrades. Instead of viewing immigrant food-chain workers as competition for low-wage jobs, labor unions like UFCW 770 and many of their allies in Los Angeles see these workers as accomplices in the fight against abusive corporations. For instance, breaking down social boundaries by hiring second-generation immigrant rights activists who speak Spanish fosters trust. Or taking public positions against deportation and restrictions on the use of social services and education provides evidence that a labor union takes social inequities as seriously as it takes economic inequities. There is more than the ethical imperative to bridge gaps between citizens and noncitizens, and Latinx immigrants and other social groups. There is a strategic significance. Building collective power across many constituencies creates a broader base to reform the food system and develop equitable alternatives.
So far I have focused on the specific structural impediments faced by immigrants. While the Mexican or Salvadoran migrant faces a militarized U.S. border upon entry, she would experience different circumstances while working in a meatpacking plant in Los Angeles or on a farm in San Diego. The barriers between activists and immigrant food-chain workers also vary. Labor unions whose rank and file come from Latinx immigrant communities have greater sensitivity to immigration than does a nonprofit like San Diego Roots, whose members consist primarily of white native English speakers. From working in the organizing department at UFCW 770, I witnessed that because most of the organizers were fluent in Spanish, they were well equipped to communicate, an obvious prerequisite to dissolving social boundaries. All the materials for the El Super boycott are available in Spanish, countless YouTube videos have interviews in Spanish with workers, and UFCW 770 has targeted the Spanish-language press and television media. A key lesson is when organizers work across social differences, the chance for greater economic and racial justice increases. This becomes apparent if we ask a counterfactual question: what would have happened were UFCW 770 not to have supported immigrant rights over the past twenty years? The likely answer is there would be greater divisions between immigrant food-chain workers, the food movement, and the labor movement.
The Urgency to Dismantle Social Boundaries
In late 2015, as the holiday season was under way, the Obama administration ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to round up and deport families from Central America who came to the United States in large numbers in 2014 to escape drug wars and violence. These raids were part of a larger 2016 plan to return some fifteen thousand people, mainly mothers and their children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, who came to the United States seeking asylum but lost their cases and were ordered to leave. These raids produced immediate backlash from immigrant rights activists and left-wing social movements. Anger over the use of raids to round up people already traumatized from the experiences that initially drove them to the United States, coupled with concern that raids would exacerbate distrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities, led to protest and public condemnation. As Marisa Franco, who is director of the national #Not1More Campaign, an organization fighting deportations, protested, “These raids are part of a pattern of abuse and intimidation woven into the fabric of the immigration enforcement agency.” With roughly four million deportations since 9/11, these raids pushed immigration reform into the public spotlight and mobilized immigrant communities into coalition with many left-wing social movements. After the xenophobic presidential campaign of Donald Trump was launched with a speech to an overwhelmingly white audience in which he told the crowd that Mexico is sending drugs, crime, and rapists into the United States, which therefore required building a wall along the entire southern U.S. border, life for undocumented immigrants became arguably worse. Whereas President Obama engaged in the mass deportation of immigrants but publicly invoked Cesar Chavez’s “Si Se Puede!” throughout his presidency to gain the trust of the Latinx community, President Trump has aligned his racist “bad hombre” rhetoric with white nationalist–infused policy.
The food justice movement faces the choice of whether to remain passive or to engage in food politics that resist the conjunctures of the post-9/11 immigration regime. To engage requires leveraging the influence of one’s organization to speak out against policies or practices that divide people. Recall the most famous lines in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In Oakland, Planting Justice sees itself similarly as a force for social change. One of its underlying commitments is to anti-racist racial projects that tie people together across many different social boundaries. So Planting Justice practices mutual aid to advance food justice by advocating for the dignity and human rights of marginalized groups. While known more for working alongside formerly incarcerated people, Planting Justice also supports immigrant rights. The organization’s engagement reflects less-quoted lines from King’s famous letter that speak out against xenophobic fears: “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This obviously includes the more than eleven million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the United States or come to its shores seeking asylum. Solidarity requires mutual recognition of the inherent dignity of all people.
In 2009, seventeen-year-old Salvador Mateo-Escobar, who became a permaculture designer and leader at Planting Justice, experienced the deportation of his mother. According to Salvador, she had applied for a work permit with immigration authorities in San Francisco. They proceeded to lie to her in a phone call saying her work permit was ready to be picked up. When she arrived, they handcuffed her and told her she was being deported. Salvador’s father had been deported when he was four years old, and so he was the only one left to take care of his little sister. The trauma of this experience extended beyond the emotional loss of being separated from one’s mother and the pressure of taking care of a younger sibling as a high school student. Salvador and his sister were also evicted from their house because they could not afford to pay the rent. Their mother toiled to raise them, always working two jobs to pay the bills. She was rarely home and lacked the time to cook for her children. As Salvador told me, when she had a break, she would leave them money and “a note saying, ‘Go buy something at the taco truck or something.’ And we had a fridge full of food, but none of us knew how to cook it. So that was more convenient for her because she needed her break and the last thing on her mind when she was coming home was cooking or cleaning or any of that.”
Knowing her children were still dependent on her, she tried to cross the border again. She hired a coyotaje, one who helps smuggle people across the U.S.–Mexico border. People pay anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 to receive help crossing the border. However, once she arrived at the border, she was “sold out” to immigration authorities and incarcerated in an Arizona detention center. Salvador received the devastating news on a collect call from his mother, who proceeded to tell him that she would miss his graduation and would be unable to come back to the United States. At around the same time, Salvador met the cofounders of Planting Justice when they came to his high school to start a program that linked urban agriculture with a food justice curriculum. Planting Justice then sponsored Salvador and one of his classmates in a mentorship program that helped them start a youth venture to build backyard gardens. Although the venture did not last, he was hired by Planting Justice. With both his parents restricted in Mexico, Salvador repeatedly used the platform of a well-known food justice organization to raise awareness about immigration and to advocate for immigrant rights.
Salvador’s story was publicized in a video on Facebook and used as a platform to encourage Planting Justice’s movement network to act. In one part of this video, he argues that deportation is not a solution, and he offers a way for people to help:
Families and individuals come to this country not to do what Donald Trump says, to like rape our women or take our resources or money, but to seek an opportunity just like the rest of us. To seek a well-paying job, to seek a job that pays you more than Mexico does, which is $5 a day. I mean, who is able to support and feed their families on $5 a day? You know what, it’s disgusting what people have to go through just to come to this country and then to be harassed on a daily basis because they don’t speak the language, because they look different. It’s always scary to wake up every morning and know that any day someone can come and just say that you are being deported. . . . On behalf of Planting Justice we would like to ask all our supporters to stand against deportations and the ICE raids that are going on right now. . . . Call the White House right now and let them know how this is affecting the communities, to stand up with our immigrant communities and families and let them know that we are supporting them and that we want them to stay in this country.
The story humanizes people impacted by deportation. Although it is hard to know how many people in Planting Justice’s network acted, the video was viewed over 6,400 times. Even if ending deportations or raids is not included in the organization’s official mission, food justice shares a common lineage with social justice movements that tackle racial and economic inequities. This lateral thinking responds to the immigration conjuncture and can develop a food politics that may otherwise be considered outside the purview of the food movement.