Originally Published in The New York Times
Katie Rogers - March 31, 2021
DELANO, Calif. — Jill Biden, the first lady, traveled to California on Wednesday to visit a pop-up vaccination site for farmworkers who have lobbied for priority access to shots during the pandemic.
In remarks to about 100 farmworkers and local politicians who had gathered to mark the birthday of César Chávez, the labor organizer who formed the country’s first successful farmworkers’ union, Dr. Biden told them that their work — and their health — had been essential to a nation crippled by the coronavirus.
“We depended on those who kept going to work every single day,” she told the crowd. “Without the farmworkers who kept harvesting our food, or the factory workers who packaged it, or the grocery store clerks who stocked our shelves, hey, we wouldn’t have made it through this year.”
It was the latest trip the first lady has made in service of the Biden administration’s political priorities, this time to maintain the president’s close ties to union workers who helped him win the election. When she arrived at the Forty Acres property outside Delano, a historic site that became the headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America, Dr. Biden was greeted by several members of Mr. Chávez’s family.
She also heard from a group of female farmworkers who picked grapes, citrus fruits and blueberries in nearby fields. Several asked the Biden administration to provide pathways to citizenship, protection from discrimination and stronger union representation.
“He is a union person. I am a member of the teachers’ union,” Dr. Biden said. “We are a union couple.”
At one point, the first lady heard from a 27-year-old mother of three that some women were forced to bring their young children into the fields with them because they did not have access to child care. Dr. Biden told the woman that she hoped that direct payments of $1,400, part of the administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, would reach those workers. The woman replied that many workers did not have access to those benefits because they were undocumented.
“I think the country needs to heal,” Dr. Biden told the group, adding that people had been hurting from the pandemic. “I’m hoping you and your family’s life get better.”
In a sign of the labor movement’s significance to the Biden administration, a member of the Chávez family had traveled with the first lady from Washington: Julie Chávez Rodriguez, the White House’s director of intergovernmental affairs, is Mr. Chávez’s granddaughter.
During her remarks, Dr. Biden said that the president supported the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that would grant temporary legal status to seasonal farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, and offer a 10-year path to citizenship.
“As president, Joe is fighting for people who often go unseen,” Dr. Biden said. “And that’s exactly the kind of immigration policy he’s working to build — one that treats children and families with dignity and creates fair pathways to citizenship, including for essential workers.”
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Thousands of Central Valley farmworkers have been scheduled to receive the coronavirus vaccine at Forty Acres over six weekends in March and April. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat, and his partner, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, joined the first lady on Wednesday at the site. Later, Dr. Biden handed out vaccination cards and “I got my Covid-19 vaccination” buttons to workers waiting to be immunized.
This year, California kicked off a landmark effort to get vaccines to farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and whose working conditions in close quarters have left them particularly vulnerable to the virus. Researchers from Purdue University estimate that about 500,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for the virus, and at least 9,000 have died from it. The coronavirus has killed more than 551,000 people in the United States, according to a New York Times count.
Over President Biden’s first two months in office, union leaders have praised his administration as one of the most labor-friendly in modern history. One of his first official acts was to move a bust of Mr. Chávez into the Oval Office, a decision Dr. Biden pointed out to applause at the event on Wednesday. The first lady also frequently repeated the farmworkers’ union’s motto, “Sí, se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” several times during her speech.
“César dared to believe that our country could change — that we could change it,” she said. “Now, it’s on us to live up to that promise.”