Foreigners in the Old Testatment: Undocumented Immigrant Farmworkers [Part 2]

With every plate of food or trip to the grocery store, a contemporary issue of extreme injustice towards the other hides just out of sight. The other in this case is the undocumented farmworker that has picked the vegetable or processed the meat that is so readily available for mass consumption and enjoyment. While all undocumented farmworkers face serious issues of injustice, the plight of undocumented women working on farms or in meat processing facilities is much more desperate than men working in those same positions. The level of injustice faced by these women is simply outrageous. In this section, multiple issues of injustice facing undocumented female farmworkers will be presented in further detail. This discussion will be followed by an exploration of five texts drawn from the Old Testament Historical Books that highlights how they address similar issues of injustice towards the other.

In the United States, approximately six out of ten agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants. In addition, approximately 4 million undocumented women are currently living in the US.[1] While most Americans benefit from their labors every day, they remain invisible. As women, they are especially vulnerable due to a lack of formal education and the common need of providing for dependent children.[2] While undocumented workers are protected by many US labor laws, enforcement of these laws is severely weak. If there were enforcement, women would still probably not report many of abuses they suffer out of fear of deportation or losing their job.[3] Their lives and labor are simply disposable goods in service to dehumanizing global economic systems that enrich the few at the expense of the many.[4]

The injustices committed towards undocumented women begin well before they enter the United States. Once they do arrive, they are likely to face many more challenges. Wage theft is a recurring issue. When it occurs, undocumented workers have no one to hear their appeals; complaining to employers usually results in the loss of their jobs.[5] In addition to wage theft, federal minimum wage laws are often circumvented by paying workers based on the amount of food picked or prepared. Other times an employer will simply pay below the federal minimum wage.[6]

The health and safety of undocumented workers is often overlooked and workers routinely put their lives at risk. For vegetable and fruit pickers, highly toxic chemicals used as pesticides and herbicides are the causes of chronic illness and infant deformities.[7] Workers in meat processing facilities fare no better. Machines operate at dangerous speeds that cause debilitating injuries. Workers face humiliation or severe punishments when they cannot keep pace. The conditions inside meat plants are usually very cold and wet and workers become sick after long hours with inadequate clothing.[8]

Finally, undocumented female farmworkers face a constant threat of sexual violence. One study conducted among California grape workers found that at least 80% of women had experienced sexual violence on the job.[9] When attacked, undocumented women have no way to protect themselves. They often do not know their rights or to whom they should report these crimes. Many women are deterred from reporting violent crimes against them because they could be deported. They are seen as the perfect victims and abuse is rampant.[10]

In tracing the theme of the foreigner through the Old Testament text, several accounts in Israel’s story speak to the injustice endured by undocumented female farmworkers. The first is Israel’s dealings with the people of Gibeon in Joshua 10. As Canaanites, these people lived on land that Yahweh had given to the Israelites. According to Yahweh’s command, they were to be destroyed or at least driven out. The Gibeonites were fully aware of their fate and of Yahweh’s liberating action on Israel’s behalf. This knowledge motivated them to trick Joshua and the elders into signing a peace treaty. When the ruse was uncovered, Joshua made them laborers. However, when the city of Gibeon was attacked by other foreign kings, the Gibeonites cried out for help and Joshua came swiftly to their aid – even though their peace treaty was signed in an act of deceit. Moreover, Yahweh had commanded Israel to drive these people out, but Israel rescued the people instead. Israel’s defeat of the Gibeonites’ enemies was no typical military battle – it was miraculous. As in other battles, Yahweh fought for Israel by confusing their enemies and raining down hailstones. However, in this battle, Joshua cried out to Yahweh to stop the sun in order to prolong the daylight. The sun obeyed and Israel routed the foreign kings who had attacked the Gibeonites.

Undocumented women working on farms across the US are much like the Gibeonites. They are driven from their home countries by their fear and their will to escape crushing poverty.[11] This drive is so strong that they are willing to enter the US illegally in the same way that the Gibeonites were willing to deceive Israel. Both undocumented female farmworkers and the Gibeonites illegitimately occupy land that “rightfully belongs” to others. However, there is a shocking difference between the response of Israel, and Yahweh, and that of the US. When undocumented farm workers cry out for stolen wages, babies deformed from chemicals, and constant sexual abuse, who hears their cries? The response of the US government and citizenry is weak at best and non-existent at worst. Israel honored the illegitimate peace treaty with the Gibeonites and, with Yahweh’s miraculous help, rescued them from their enemies. Undocumented farm workers, especially women, are also under attack; they are desperate for US consumers, churches, and political leaders to look beyond their undocumented status and honor their lives and work.

Under Joshua’s leadership, Israel follows Yahweh’s command to designate cities of refuge. These cities protected those who killed another without the intent to kill from being killed out of revenge.  By Yahweh’s command in Numbers 35:9-15, this right of sanctuary was extended to both Israelites and resident or transient foreigners. Yahweh’s concern for protecting the lives of all by breaking cycles of violence calls the people of God to stand up for the rights of undocumented farm workers. While some labor laws do extend to undocumented workers, there is often little enforcement. Female farm workers do not speak out when their rights are continually abused because of the imminent threat of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They are too desperate and too vulnerable to risk losing their jobs by complaining to their employers.[12] They need a voice that holds US government and law enforcement agencies accountable for the protection of their basic human rights.

The story of injustice against undocumented farm workers finds another connection to the plight of the foreigner in ancient Israel in the list of returned exiles found in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. The list ends with an account of three families of priests who “sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there.”[13] As a result, these priests were deemed unclean and not allowed to serve. They were also denied their only source of provision – the holy food given as offerings by the people. Undocumented farm workers experience very similar treatment. All too often, their wages are stolen by their employers through a myriad of tricks and schemes. Like these “undocumented” priests, they are cast out from society and deprived of the dignity that comes from earning an honest pay. Interestingly, while the Israelite people rejected these families as priests, they had no difficulty accepting the labor of these families during the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s wall. Undocumented farm workers in the US share a similar fate: while nearly every US citizen relies on the work of undocumented people to fill their plates, few are willing to allow undocumented workers a fair share in the fruit of their labor.

Throughout the Old Testament story, the foreigner is often portrayed in a very negative light. However, one story shatters the negative cast of the foreigner and provides hope for undocumented workers, especially women, who are battered by waves of injustice and hate. Ruth, the Moabite woman who refused to leave her mother-in-law Naomi’s side, is blessed by Israel and in return she becomes a great blessing to the nation. Upon her return with Naomi to Israel, she gleans in the field because she and Naomi have no land of their own. She finds favor in the eyes of Boaz, who protects her from the young men in other fields who might “bother” her – a familiar reality for millions of undocumented women working in the fields today. Ruth is forced to depend on the laws of Israel for her continued survival and Naomi’s redemption. Upon making her case to Boaz, he is faithful to fulfill the role of kinsman redeemer on Ruth and Naomi’s behalf. Like Ruth, the undocumented women laboring on farms across the country simply desire to provide for themselves and their families. Like her, they are willing to give up all they know and endure the treacherous journey to the US – a leap of faith that is fueled by their hope for a better future. Once they arrive, their stories do not usually end in the blessing Ruth experienced. Instead of welcome and hospitality, they find distrust, hatred, and abuse because they have no kinsman redeemer. Where is the Boaz of the church today? Like Ruth, undocumented farm workers can be a blessing – if only the church would take them in and love them as their own.

[1] Mary Bauer and Monica Ramirez, “Injustice on Our Plates” (Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010), 4.

[2] Bauer and Ramirez, 22.

[3] Bauer and Ramirez, 24.

[4] Bauer and Ramirez, 22.

[5] Bauer and Ramirezm 25.

[6] Bauer and Ramirez, 26.

[7] Bauer and Ramirez, 30-31.

[8] Bauer and Ramirez, 33-35.

[9] Bauer and Ramirez, 46.

[10] Bauer and Ramirez, 42.

[11] Bauer and Ramirez, 7.

[12] Bauer and Ramirez, 42.

[13] Ezra 2:62, Neh. 7:64


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