Skip to navigation

Skip to main content

 

April 2017, Volume 23, Number 2

H-2A; Braceros

The H-2A program, which provides an unlimited number of guest worker visas to farmers who are certified to employ guest workers, continued to expand in FY17. The number of jobs certified to be filled with H-2A workers rose from 24,000 in the first quarter of FY16 to 28,000 in the first quarter of FY17, up 17 percent.

DOL certified 165,700 jobs to be filled by H-2A workers in FY16, up 14 percent from 145,900 in FY15. Over 35 percent of H-2A jobs were in three southeastern states, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, followed by 15 percent in Washington and California, that is, five states had half of H-2A certifications in FY16.

In California, most H-2A workers are brought to farms by farm labor contractors such as Fresh Harvest, while in Washington most H-2A workers are brought to farms by an employer organization, the Washington Farm Labor Association. Most Florida oranges are picked by H-2A workers employed by FLCs, while in North Carolina most H-2A workers are brought into the state by the 700-member North Carolina Growers Association.

DOL certified 64,100 jobs to be filled by H-2A workers in FY06, meaning that the number of jobs certified to be filled with H-2A workers rose 2.5 times in a decade. Some expect that in FY17 over 200,000 farm jobs will be certified to be filled with H-2A workers.

The Better Agricultural Resources Now (BARN) Act, HR 641, would transfer the H-2A program from DOL to USDA, allow dairy and other farmers offering year-round jobs to be certified to employ H-2A workers, and require farmers to pay H-2A workers 115 percent of the federal or state minimum wage, less than the current Adverse Effect Wage Rate.

The New York Times on February 9, 2017 reported that some of the California farmers who supported Trump are having second thoughts because of the threat of deportations of their workers. Farmers were quoted saying that they want Trump to allow currently illegal workers to become H-2A workers.

Trump Vineyard Estates in Charlottesville, Virginia, owned by Eric Trump, requested certification to hire 29 H-2A workers in 2017; other area vineyards also employ H-2A workers. Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort and Jupiter golf course in Florida were certified to employ 77 H-2B workers in 2017. CNN reported that Trump companies employed at least 1,256 H-2A and H-2B workers, most from Romania and South Africa, between 2000 and 2015.

Braceros. The number of Braceros admitted to the US between 1942 and 1964 was almost five million. Many Mexicans returned year after year, so one to two million individuals accounted for the five million Bracero admissions.

During the peak year of 1956, over 445,000 Braceros were admitted to work on US crop farms. Many Braceros were in the US only for several months, so that an estimated 126,000 full-time equivalent jobs were filled by Braceros in 1956, a ratio of 3.5 Braceros per FTE job, suggesting that Braceros worked an average 3.4 months each. This average duration of three to four months was stable throughout the 1950s.

The average employment of hired workers on US farms in 1956 was two million, suggesting that 126,000 FTE Braceros were six percent of the average hired farm workforce. Braceros were concentrated in California and other Pacific states, where there were an average of only 300,000 hired workers, making Braceros a third or more of average employment.

Clemens estimated the effects of ending the Bracero program in 1964 by assembling data on farm employment and wages before and after 1964. He found that wages in states with more Braceros rose at the same pace as in states with few or no Braceros, suggesting that removing Braceros did not lead to wage spikes in states that could no longer employ Braceros.

Instead of US workers filling jobs vacated by Braceros, commodities such as processing tomatoes, cotton, and sugar beets substituted capital for labor, so that production rose and employment fell. In crops that remained hand-harvested, including lettuce and citrus, mechanical aids were introduced to make work easier and to increase worker productivity.

The major implication of the Clemens analysis is that flexibility to adjust to a smaller labor supply lies mostly on the demand side of the farm labor market, not the supply side. Reducing the supply of workers does more to accelerate labor-saving substitution or encourage farmers to switch to less labor-intensive crops than it does to raise wages and draw US workers into the farm work force.

The slowdown in unauthorized Mexico-US migration since the 2008-09 recession is having effects similar to those of the 1960s. More farmers are providing their workers with mechanical aids to raise productivity, such as conveyor belts in the fields to reduce the time required to carry harvested produce. Dwarf trees produce apples and cherries that can be harvested without ladders, increasing worker productivity and making harvesting jobs more attractive to older workers and women.

There are renewed efforts to develop labor-saving machines. The major obstacles to machine harvesting of fruits and vegetables are uneven ripening and damage to the fruit and/or the tree. Some 70 to 80 percent of iceberg lettuce is harvested in the first pass through a field. Transplants and other technologies are raising the first-pass harvest toward 90 percent, which would allow a machine to cut all the lettuce in one pass and sort out the immature heads. Similarly, smaller trees and abscission chemicals allow fruit to be shaken from trees with machines that grasp the trunk and dislodge the fruit, the method used to harvest most tree nuts. The chemicals loosen the fruit, and smaller trees limit the fall and the damage to the fruit.

Some farmers are switching crops, as from raisins to almonds. US raisins have traditionally been produced by farms with fewer than 50 acres and harvested by workers who cut green bunches and lay them on paper trays to dry into raisins in the sun. Larger vineyards planted with earlier-ripening grapes can justify machines that cut the canes holding bunches of grapes so that they dry into raisins on the vine; machines then shake the raisins into accompanying bins. Some smaller raisin growers are selling out to larger growers or switching to nuts that are harvested mechanically.

More growers are supplementing their aging and settled farm work forces with H-2A guest workers. DOL certified 165,700 farm jobs to be filled with guest workers in FY16, almost three times the 59,100 certified in FY06. By selecting only the best foreign workers, employers can justify the AEWR of $11 to $12 an hour that must be paid to H-2A workers, plus the cost of recruitment, transportation and housing.

H-2A are generally younger and more productive in hand-harvesting tasks, and they are "loyal" since they cannot switch US employers in order to earn higher wages.

About half of the workers employed on US crop farms have been unauthorized over the past two decades. Crop workers interviewed by the NAWS were an average 28 in the mid-1990s and are today over 38. Most have families that include US-born children.

Most farm workers have only one farm employer during the year, and fewer than five percent follow the ripening crops, with multiple employers in several states. Farm work is increasingly like nonfarm work in the sense that farm workers live away from the place where they work and carpool to their jobs.

Two major farm labor scenarios are possible. First, there could be enforcement-only legislation that reduces the farm labor supply and accelerates labor-saving mechanization and crop changes, speeding the diffusion of robotic milking systems and systems to mechanize the harvest of fruits and vegetables. Second, there could be relaxation of regulations to employ guest workers, which could mark a return to the Bracero era of the 1950s, when Braceros lived on the farms where they worked. The most likely scenario is some combination of more mechanization and more guest workers, but not more US workers in the fields.

Clemens believes that Americans will not do farm work for wages. He argues that foreigners employed temporarily in US agriculture can benefit themselves and their countries of origin as well as the US, the elusive triple-win in migration and development. For example, Haitians could increase their incomes 15-fold by working in US agriculture, and their remittances could benefit the poorest Haitian households.

A sample of 30 Haitian workers, including 12 who were employed in the US in 2015 and earned about $100 a day, found that even short periods of US work raised the incomes of rural Haitians. Clemens believes that the supply of US workers is inelastic or unlikely to increase with wages, so that admitting guest workers to fill jobs that would otherwise be vacant maintains US farm production.

H-2B. There are 66,000 H-2B visas available to nonfarm employers seeking foreign workers to fill seasonal jobs lasting nine months or less, and they are allocated to employers in two 33,000-lot tranches. Employers may apply 90 days before their date of need, and they requested 82,000 H-2B workers for the April 1-Sepember 30, 2017 period, far more than the 33,000 available. Landscaping employs almost 40 percent of H-2B workers.

Economists note that wages in 10 of the 15 top H-2B occupations including landscaping fell between 2004 and 2014, and the unemployment rate rose in 14 of the 15 occupations with the most H-2B workers. Employers are allowed to conduct private surveys to determine prevailing wages for H-2B workers, and DOL may not monitor employer efforts to recruit US workers.

The largest low-skilled guest worker program are five of the 14 programs under J-1, a program administered by DOS. Foreign exchange visitors are expected to work and learn in the US, but almost 100,000 are college youth employed in the US as maids and housekeepers in seasonal hotels, including in US national parks under the Summer Work Travel program. Others are au pairs (17,500 in 2015), camp counselors (21,000), or interns (24,000), so that almost 170,000 foreign youth filled seasonal low-skilled jobs in 2015.

Clemens, Michael A. Ethan G. Lewis, and Hannah M. Postel. 2017. Immigration Restrictions as Active Labor Market Policy: Evidence from the Mexican Bracero Exclusion. NBER Paper 23125. http://www.nber.org/papers/w23125