Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. (Flickr/Institute for Policy Studies)
It’s likely that President Obama will bring up immigration reform in tonight’s State of the Union address. He might reiterate his support for a path to legal citizenship for all immigrants who “get in the back of the line,” with separate paths for high-skilled STEM workers, DREAMers and agricultural workers. Workers in STEM fields and agricultural workers are, doubtless, vital to the stability of our economy. But there’s another group of workers we depend on but apparently don’t value as highly. As I noted previously, the Senate Gang of Eight proposal made specific mention of agricultural workers yet left domestic workers out of its provision for fast-track citizenship—even though a large percentage of these workers are undocumented, yet perform work that is vital to our economy at low wages.
Why were domestic workers left out? One big reason is that agricultural employers are just more organized. As Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told me, big business lobbies for agriculture and STEM jobs—in science, technology, engineering and math—“have been very engaged in pushing for immigration reform because of the critical role immigrant workers play in their industries.” Both groups also have a lot of resources at their fingertips. Domestic workers, on the other hand, don’t have similar forces at work for them. “The employer interest in the care workforce is much less organized, and therefore much less resourced,” she pointed out. After all, a lot of the employers are simply private families.
Yet the need for these workers is very similar. Domestic workers are just as vital to our economy as agricultural workers. They make it possible for millions of people to go to work and know that their loved ones are cared for. Another argument for a fast track for agricultural workers is that, as Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, put it, “Crops are rotting in the fields.” There just aren’t enough native-born agricultural workers to meet the demand and ensure the stability of our food supply, and without access to citizenship, employers are stuck between illegal hiring practices and finding the workers they need. Yet the same problem is facing the care workforce. As a report released yesterday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in collaboration with Caring Across Generations states, “Currently, native-born workers in the United States are not meeting the demands for long-term care, a situation that is unlikely to change as the demand for such care continues to grow.” In 2008, about 3.2 million people worked as direct caregivers, a number that’s expected to grow by over a million jobs by 2018. Where will we find all those workers?