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Jill Biden travels to California to mark Cesar Chavez’s birthday, thank essential farmworkers

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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 amid the pandemic. She told them that their work — and their health — had been essential to a nation crippled by the virus.

“We depended on those who kept going to work every single day,” Dr. Biden told a crowd of about 100 farm workers who had gathered to mark the birthday of César Chávez, the labor organizer who formed the country’s first successful farmworker’s union. “Without the farmworkers who kept harvesting our food, or the factory workers who packaged it, the grocery store clerks who stocked shelves, no one would have made it through this year.”

When she arrived at the “Forty Acres” property just west of Delano, a historic site that became the headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America, the first lady was greeted by several members of Mr. Chávez’s family.

Dr. Biden heard from a group of women farmworkers who picked grapes and blueberries in nearby fields. They asked the Biden administration to provide pathways to citizenship, protection from discrimination, and stronger union representation. “We’re a union couple,” Dr. Biden replied.

At one point, the first lady heard from a 27-year-old mother of three that some women were forced to bring their babies and young children to the fields because they did not have access to child care. The first lady told the woman that she hoped some money from the $1.9 trillion stimulus package would reach those workers, but the woman replied that many were undocumented.

In a sign of the labor movement’s significance to the Biden administration, a member of the Chávez family had traveled with her from Washington: Julie C. Rodriguez, the White House’s director of intergovernmental affairs, is Mr. Chávez’s granddaughter.

During her remarks, Dr. Biden said that President Biden supported the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that would grant temporary legal status to seasonal farm workers, 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.”

Thousands of Central Valley farmworkers are 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 at the site.

Earlier this year, California kicked off a landmark effort to get vaccines to farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and whose close-quarter working conditions 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 virus has killed over 550,000 people in the United States, according to a New York Times count.

Over the course of Mr. 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 Mr. Biden’s 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. Dr. Biden also frequently repeated the farmworker union’s motto, “Sí, se puede,” (“Yes, we can”) several times during the course of her speech.

“César dared to believe that our country could change — that we could change it,” Dr. Biden said. “Now, it’s on us to live up to that promise.”

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