On December 13, the Inter-American Institute on Migration and
Labor organized a meeting of 25 farm worker advocates in Washington
DC to discuss the possibility of a foreign worker program with
Mexico. Even though it was agreed that there were far more signs of
labor surplus than shortage, it was noted that the two blades of the
scissors could come together quickly to produce a program.
Outgoing President Salinas and Governor Wilson in November, 1994
called for a guestworker program that would allow Mexican workers to
be employed in the US. Salinas justified a program in terms of
protecting the inevitable flow of Mexican workers to the US; Wilson
in terms of having workers come legally, and managing their access to
US employers are currently allowed to recruit unskilled foreign
workers to fill vacant US jobs only after they convince the US
Department of Labor that, after a search for US workers at prevailing
wages, and the offer of benefits such as free housing to temporary
foreign farmworkers, no US workers are available. Since 1990, there
have been 35,000 to 40,000 unskilled foreign workers admitted each
year. About half fill farm jobs.
Temporary alien farm workers are admitted under the H-2A program,
to cut sugar cane in Florida, harvest tobacco in the Carolinas, pick
apples in the Northeast, and herd sheep in the West. Many farm
employers and most farm worker advocates decry the H-2A program--the
farmers because of DOL's role in certifying--and perhaps
rejecting--their need for foreign workers on a job-by-job basis, and
the advocates because DOL allegedly does not do enough to assure that
farmers truly recruit American workers.
If labor shortages develop in Spring, 1995, and INS border
controls are perceived to have reduced significantly illegal
immigration at the border, then pressures could mount for a non-H-2A
foreign worker program.
Farm worker advocates at the meet ing discussed the elements of
such a program if one should be proposed. One suggestion was to push
for more effective labor law enforcement to encourage employers to
prefer Americans, but it was quickly agreed that complaint-driven and
money-assessment-evaluated enforcement can have only limited effects
on a farm labor market that matches one to two million seasonal
workers with three to four million seasonal jobs.
Some argued that, if there were to be a non-H-2A foreign worker
program, it should be a RAW-type program, under which foreign workers
would gradually earn the right to become immigrants by doing e.g., at
least 90 days of farm work for two or three years.
It was generally agreed that IRCA and IRCA-sponsored research has
changed both the reality and the perception of the farm labor market.
The reality is that most farmworkers, and virtually all new entrants
to the farm work force, are born abroad--the base "states" for US
migrants have switched from Florida, Texas, and California to central
and southern Mexico. The only disputed point was the share of
unauthorized workers in the stable farm work force--the range of
hard-to-verify estimates is 10 to 50 percent. There is general
agreement that the share of unauthorized workers is rising, but the
most credible evidence available today points to smaller percentages
of unauthorized aliens.
The seasonal farm labor market is increasingly disorganized. As
intermediaries such as labor contractors assume a greater role in job
matching, more workers wind up working only a few hours per day, and
a few days each week, even during peak periods. Second, the farm
labor market has gotten so isolated that non-marginal changes in
wages and working arrangements would likely be required to end the
industry's dependence on immigrant workers without other US jobs
options. However, if there were to be such non-marginal adjustments,
the demand for labor might fall sharply, via e.g., mechanization or