American Agriculture’s Dependence on Immigrant Workers

By: Sydney Sims

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

Immigration is one of the most hotly debated issues in American politics. With the ever-growing demand for food, demand for labor to harvest that food continues to rise as well. 73% of the crop farm worker population in the United States are immigrant workers. Roughly 48% of hired crop farmworkers have no work authorization. Immigrant workers are able to assist with harvest through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program. This program allows crop farmers to hire seasonal, foreign-born workers to help with labor needs for up to 10 months out of the year. In 2019,  there were 258,000 certifications issued for H-2A visas. Other year-round industries like dairy and poultry production facilities are not eligible for H-2A visas, causing them to rely on undocumented workers.

Labor needs are concentrated in California, Texas, Michigan, Washington and North Carolina where the local demand for labor far outweighs the labor supply, pushing farmers to bring in immigrant workers. 80% of immigrant workers fall into the “settled” farmworker category, meaning they work at a single farm location within 75 miles of their home. Those in opposition of immigrant labor are quick to argue the unemployment rates in the U.S., but the truth is Americans would rather be jobless than work in agriculture. A 2010 national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H-2A employers showed that 68% of the 36,000 domestic workers state agencies referred to H-2A employers did not accept jobs offered to them. The job requires long, laborious work for minimal pay. Farm labor is the third highest expense for a farmer, making it virtually impossible for business owners to increase wages and keep product prices low. Increasing labor costs to incentivize domestic workers is not a solution since American consumers are sensitive to increased price on fruits, vegetables and other horticultural goods. But Mexican and Central American immigrants can make double their local minimum wages by working in the U.S. Another issue facing immigrant labor is holding onto immigrant workers long term. The turnover rate for immigrant workers is extremely high. Agriculture acts as a steppingstone to the “American dream” and immigrants don’t plan to work in farm labor any longer than necessary.

While most federal and state labor laws, including those regarding wages and safety training, protect all workers equally, regardless of immigration status, many undocumented workers either do not know these rights or are afraid to assert them. As an undocumented worker, immigrants run significant risks if they choose to file a claim against their employer. Although retaliation is illegal, if the employer goes so far as to notify ICE of the workers status, the worker could be investigated or, worst case, deported and excluded from the U.S. workforce permanently. There is a delicate dependency between immigration and American agriculture. Farmers need cheap labor to keep consumers satisfied, but workers also need fair wages and working conditions. The H-2A Program is far from perfect and underinclusive in meeting the needs of both farmers and workers. Just this month, the House passed an immigration bill to give undocumented agricultural workers a chance at citizenship. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would establish a system where immigrants working under temporary status would have the chance to eventually become permanent residents, amending the current H-2A Program. It seems reform for immigrant farm labor could be just around the corner.

You can read the text and track the status of the bill here: H.R. 1603-Farm Modernization Act of 2021

Posted in: Legal Comentary

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