Agriculture on Front Lines of Immigrant Worker Shortage

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By Laura D. Francis

How agriculture handles its diminishing supply of undocumented workers could be a bellwether for other industries that may need to cope with increased immigration enforcement.

As the Trump administration continues to crack down on illegal immigration, industries that historically have been dependent on unauthorized immigrants are going to need a plan B.

Agriculture is a “great case study in the adaptability of sectors of the economy, given demographic changes,” Michael Fix, president of the Migration Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 10. Even though the number of immigrant farm workers is dwindling, “we haven’t seen disaster yet in agriculture,” he said.

The industry’s ability to adapt could determine the future of meatpacking, construction, and other immigrant-dependent industries that are “finding their labor forces drying up,” he said.

Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of the farm labor force made up of undocumented immigrants dropped from 55 percent to 47 percent, according to an Aug. 10 report from the MPI. The report, which relied on data from the Labor Department’s National Agricultural Worker Survey, said the decrease is in large part the result of a drop in unauthorized migration from Mexico during the recession of 2008-2009.

Drop in New Unauthorized Immigrants

“There are fewer new unauthorized people coming in,” said Philip Martin, an economist with the University of California, Davis, and the report’s author. In 2000, about one in four crop workers in the U.S. was a newly arrived unauthorized immigrant. Now it’s down to about 1 in 100, he told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 11.

About 50 percent of all farm workers in the U.S. still are undocumented immigrants, but they’re not newly arrived, Martin said. Rather, they’re older—with an average age of 40—they have families, and they’re more settled, meaning they’re less likely to migrate around the U.S. to pick crops, he said.

“The adjustments that farmers are making are exactly what you would predict,” Martin said.

Because farm workers start to drop out of agricultural work at around age 40, growers are taking steps to try and retain them, he said. That includes offering perks such as bonuses and finding ways to make the work easier.

But those are short-term workforce solutions, Martin said. In the long term, it’s a “race between machines and guest workers.”

Rise in H-2A Program

The H-2A agricultural guest-worker program has a good head start in that race. In the past 20 years, the program has increased from 11,000 visas issued in 1996 to more than 134,000 in 2016, according to the MPI report.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw 200,000 jobs certified this year,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. The lack of growth in the undocumented immigrant population, coupled with “open questions” about the Trump administration’s enforcement tactics, could cause the program to grow even more, he told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 10.

“You’re running a risk” hiring undocumented workers, Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at the American Farm Bureau Foundation, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 10.

Anecdotally, growers are reporting increased apprehension among farm workers, who fear Trump administration enforcement operations, Schlegel said. “If you’re an employer and that atmosphere is out there, you want to make sure you have your workers when you need them.”

The rising use of the H-2A program is a “striking factor,” Fix said. The program historically was “shunned” by the agriculture industry, he said. “There’s a certain momentum here” with the program, and that momentum is likely to continue, he said.

Congress’s Influence

How much the program takes off also depends upon what Congress does, Costa said.

In July, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he would introduce a bill to create a new agricultural guestworker program. The bill would eliminate the labor certification process, instead requiring only that employers attest they can’t find U.S. workers for the job. It also would eliminate current H-2A program requirements that U.S. workers be hired even after foreign guestworkers have started work, that free housing and transportation be provided for workers, and that employers pay a wage determined by the Labor Department.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) also added an amendment to the Homeland Security Department funding bill that would allow growers to use the H-2A program for year-round work. The amendment would open up the program to nonseasonal businesses that traditionally have been excluded, such as the dairy industry.

“What we have been asking for, and it goes back a good 20 years or so now, is we need a program to replace H-2A,” Schlegel said. The program should have an “at will component,” allowing at least some workers to change employers, it should be available for year-round positions, and it should be run by the Agriculture Department, he said.

Potential for Exploitation

But it’s also “likely” that exploitation of guest workers also will increase, Costa said. For example, employers paying a piece-rate wage can create a “really high productivity standard,” he said.

Under the H-2A program, employers have to pay the “adverse effect wage rate"—an hourly rate set by the Labor Department based on average agricultural pay in the state. Employers paying a piece-rate wage still have to pay the AEWR, even if the worker doesn’t pick enough crops to equal that amount in an hour, Costa said.

A grower is likely to fire those with lower productivity in this case, and “the H-2A workers know that if they lose their job they’re going to get deported,” he said. They’re going to “work as hard as they possibly can to stay in the good graces of the employer.”

And that makes it even more unlikely that U.S. workers would suddenly start taking agriculture jobs, he said.

Don’t Count on U.S. Workers

“We won’t get more U.S. workers” in agriculture, Martin said. “That’s pretty simple.”

Many unemployed Americans don’t live in areas where farm workers are needed, according to Martin. They generally also want more year-round, permanent positions with the possibility of upward mobility—which can’t really be found in peach picking.

And while there probably is an hourly wage that would make farm work attractive to U.S. workers, growers are more likely to turn to mechanization or imports before they’ll pay that kind of wage, Martin said.

“We’ve had in the past huge amounts of government resources spent trying to organize U.S. workers to do farm work,” and “the record is quite mixed,” he said. Now the question is whether the government should subsidize mechanization that decreases labor costs, buy out farmers, and accept more imports, or induce more domestic workers to migrate with the ripening crops.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Chris Opfer at

For More Information

Text of the MPI report is available at

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