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Immigration Reform, Agriculture, and Rural Communities

Immigration Reform, Agriculture, and Rural Communities
Philip Martin—
May 28, 2006

Table 1. Status of Foreign-born US Residents, March 2005 3

“American agriculture cannot build its strength on an illegal foundation.” Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), April 7, 2006 Floor Statement

The farm workers of tomorrow are growing up today outside the US, making immigration policy a major concern of farmers who hire workers, workers who seek US jobs, and the communities in which the workers live and sometimes settle. Agriculture in states such as California has relied on waves of newcomers to fill especially seasonal jobs for the past 150 years, but over the past two decades, immigrants have spread throughout US agriculture. Today, most of the workers hired to fill farm jobs were born and educated abroad, and perhaps half are not legally authorized to be employed in the US.

In the mid-1980s, when a quarter of the farm workers in traditional immigrant states such as California were unauthorized, a last-minute compromise between farm employers and worker advocates allowed 1.1 million Mexicans, a sixth of the adult men in rural Mexico, to become legal immigrants under the Special Agricultural Worker program of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The expectation was that IRCA’s sanctions on employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers would halt their influx, and that farm wages and benefits would have to be improved in order to retain now legal workers who gained increased mobility in the US labor market.

Indeed, fears of farm labor shortages due to the rapid exit of SAWs from farm work prompted a new survey, the National Agricultural Workers Survey, to help measure the changing supply of farm workers. IRCA also refined the agricultural guest worker program known as the H-2A program and included the never-implemented Replenishment Agricultural Worker program, which served as a model for the farm worker legalization program included in the Senate’s version of immigration reforms in 2006 (see below).

However, IRCA accelerated rather than slowing unauthorized migration. Latino migrants continued to arrive and spread throughout the US, from seasonal jobs on farms to construction, service, and manufacturing in both rural and urban areas. Seasonal farm jobs continue to serve as a port of entry for unauthorized newcomers from abroad, and the spread of unauthorized migrants has increased the risk of an abrupt change in the cost and availability of labor throughout agricultural America.

Immigration reform raises three critical questions for farmers, farm workers, and communities. First, how fast is dependence on newly arrived immigrants spreading in rural America? We know that a supply of labor can create its own demand, in part because the availability of labor can encourage plantings in areas that may not be planted in labor-intensive crops because of the lack of a seasonal work force. More broadly, what are the implications of an immigrant-dominated workforce in the US food system? With Latinos a seventh of the US labor force, but seven-eighths of US crop workers and half of meatpacking workers, will the US food system evolve to include mostly white employers and Hispanic employees?

Second, farming offers most hired workers jobs rather than careers, so that moving up the US job ladder normally requires farm workers to get out of agriculture. The children of farm workers educated in the US rarely follow their parents into the fields, leading to a labor vacuum in the seasonal farm labor market that, by some estimates, leads to 10 percent annual turnover among hired workers. Could farm workers be kept in agriculture longer, with higher wages and benefits justified by experience and more efficient labor markets, or will the farm labor market continue to act as a revolving-door first US-job for newcomers?

Third, rural and agricultural areas attracting migrants are diverse. Some are growing, attracting migrants to fill jobs in expanding recreational or manufacturing industries. Other areas are losing people, so that the availability of migrants helps to preserve farms and factories that could otherwise close and accelerate population decline. Still other agricultural areas are gaining people faster than jobs, keeping unemployment rates in double-digits and raising questions about the existence of farm labor shortages? What happens to immigrants and their children in areas of population expansion, decline, and persisting high levels of unemployment?
Immigration Reform
In March 2005, there were 37 million foreign-born US residents, including 31 percent naturalized US citizens, 39 percent legal immigrants and nonimmigrants such as foreign students and legal temporary workers, and 30 percent unauthorized. The increase in the number of unauthorized workers has been especially fast in recent years. The stock of unauthorized foreigners rose by an estimated 4.4 million between 2000 and 2005, an average 880,000 a year, while the number of legal immigrants was 706,000 in 2003.
Table 1. Status of Foreign-born US Residents, March 2005
Status of Foreign-born US Residents, March 2005
Percent Millions
Naturalized US Citizens 31% 11.5
Legal immigrants and nonimmigrants 39% 14.4
Unauthorized 30% 11.1
Total 100% 37
Source: Passel, 2006, 3

Opinion polls find that most Americans want the US government to take additional steps to prevent illegal migration. A December 2005 Washington Post-ABC News poll reported that 80 percent of Americans think the federal government should do more to reduce illegal immigration, and 56 percent agree that unauthorized migrants hurt the US more than they help it. An April 2006 Los Angeles Times poll found that 63 percent of Americans favored stepped-up enforcement as well as a guest worker program to deal with illegal migration, while 30 percent favored stepped-up enforcement only.

The House in December 2005 approved the enforcement-only Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437) on a 239 to 182 vote. The House bill includes mandatory screening of employees to ensure they are legally authorized to work in the US. Within two years of enactment, all US employers would have to submit Social Security and immigration data on newly hired workers to government agencies by telephone or computer, receiving a credit-card type confirmation that the worker is legally authorized to work in the US, is unauthorized, or whose status cannot be determined. Employers who continued to employ unauthorized workers would be presumed to know they are employing unauthorized workers. Within six years, employers would have to verify the status of their current employees.

The House bill includes several controversial items, including making "illegal presence" in the US a felony, which may make it hard for unauthorized foreigners to eventually become legal immigrants, and adding 700 miles of fencing along the Mexico-US border. However, the House bill does not include a guest worker or legalization program, under the theory that enforcement must be proven effective before additional migrant workers arrive legally and the government deals with unauthorized foreigners in the US. The California Farm Bureau, inter alia, has said that it “cannot live with” stepped up enforcement that is effective and the existing H-2A guest worker program.

The Senate approved the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S2611) in May 2006. Like the House bill, it contains measures that would increase border enforcement and require employers to submit data on newly hired employees to a new government database. However, the Senate bill also includes new guest worker and earned legalization programs.

The new guest worker program would add H-2C worker visas to a list that currently includes H-1A, H-1B, H-2A, and H-2B. Employers in any US industry could attest that the employment of H-2C migrants "will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of workers in the United States similarly employed" and not lead to the termination of US workers 90 days before and after the H-2C migrants go to work. Foreigners with job offers from such US employers could pay $500 and obtain six-year work permits.

US employers would set the process in motion by filing their job vacancies in an electronic job registry, offering at least the minimum or prevailing wage "for the occupational classification in the area of employment, taking into account experience and skill levels of employees." If US workers are unavailable, the employer would issue job offers to foreigners, who would use them to obtain H-2C visas in their countries of origin. Employers in metropolitan or micropolitan statistical areas with unemployment rates "for unskilled and low-skilled workers during the most recently completed six-month period [that] averaged more than 11 percent" could not hire H-2C workers.

Employers of H-2C visa holders could apply for immigrant visas for their workers after one year of US work, and H-2C visa holders could apply for immigrant visas on their own after four years in the US and certification of knowledge of English and civics. The US Department of Labor would have to certify that there were no US workers available to fill the jobs for which immigrant visas for H-2C workers were sought.

The number of H-2C visas was initially set at 325,000 a year, to be raised by 20 percent immediately if all H-2C visas are allocated within the first quarter of the FY, that is, to 390,000, which would make the ceiling for the next FY 468,000. If all visas were exhausted in the first quarter each year, the annual limit would be 970,000 in the seventh year. If H-2C visas are exhausted in the second quarter, an additional 15 percent the FY's visa ceiling would be made available immediately, and the annual ceiling would be raised by 15 percent for the next year; if exhausted in the third quarter, the factor would be 10 percent. If H-2C visas are not all used, the ceiling for the next year would be reduced by 10 percent. During Senate deliberations, the starting number of H-2C was reduced to 200,000.

Enforcement aims to prevent the entry and employment of unauthorized foreigners, and the H-2C program offers a legal channel for US employers to hire migrants. However, the most controversial item in the Senate bill deals with the 11 to 12 million unauthorized foreigners in the US. The compromise embraced by a majority of Senators divides them into three groups based on their length of time in the US. Unauthorized foreigners in the US at least five years could become “probationary immigrants” by proving they worked in the US, paid any back taxes and a $1,000 fee, and passed English and background tests. At the end of six years of continued US work and tax payments and another $1,000 fee, they could apply for green cards or immigrant visas, although they would have to go to the back of the visa queue(total fees were raised to $3,250 during Senate deliberations)..

Unauthorized foreigners in the US for two to five years would have to satisfy the same requirements, but in addition return to their countries of origin and re-enter the US legally. Finally, those in the US less than two years would be expected to depart, although they could return legally with H-2C visas. On a 50-49 vote, the Senate allowed unauthorized foreigners who later become legal immigrants to receive Social Security credit for the work they did while unauthorized, provided the appropriate taxes were paid.

Unauthorized farm workers would be treated differently. The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS) would allow up to 1.5 million unauthorized foreigners who did at least 150 days or 863 hours of farm work during the 24-month period ending December 31, 2005 to pay $500 and obtain blue-card temporary resident status (this employment can be verified with pay stubs, tax filings, contracts etc). Blue-card holders who perform at least 100 days of farm work each year during the 5-year period beginning on the date of enactment, or at least 150 work days each year in a 3-year period after enactment, could become legal immigrants (a work day is at least 5.75 hours).

While in blue-card status, foreigners could also do nonfarm work, travel legally in and out of the US, and get work authorization for their spouses, who would not have to work in agriculture, as well as legal status for their minor children in the US. Blue-card holders would be removable if they did not do the required farm work or pay taxes, but when they did the qualifying farm work, they could get immigrant visas outside the overall ceiling of 675,000 a year. The country numerical limitations for Mexico, India, China and the Philippines would also be waived to expedite their adjustment to immigrant status.
Implications for Agriculture
The spread of unauthorized foreigners throughout rural America has raised concerns for farmers, workers, and communities. Farmers worry that the availability and cost of farm labor could change unexpectedly with enforcement of existing or a tougher enforcement regime, workers and their families are unsure of their future in the US, and communities are struggling to cope with growing numbers of foreigners attracted to farm and farm-related jobs who often have below-poverty level incomes and who may or may not settle.

Farmers had total farm labor expenditures of $22 billion in 2002, according to the Census of Agriculture. These labor expenditures are concentrated by size and type of farm: large farms producing fruits, vegetables, and horticultural (FVH) specialties hire most of the workers and account for most of the labor expenditures. The largest 10 percent of the 555,000 farms reporting hired workers accounted for 60 percent of all workers hired in 2002, and FVH farms accounted for two-thirds of crop labor expenses and half of total farm labor expenses.

The current H-2A program presumes that US farmers will normally find sufficient US workers to fill farm jobs. Farmers anticipating too few US workers can ask the US Department of Labor to certify their need for foreign workers, which occurs after DOL-supervised recruitment efforts and inspection of the free housing that must be provided to out-of-area domestic and foreign workers. Requesting H-2A workers alerts unions and advocates, who sometimes sue employers for not hiring US workers who respond to the farmer’s ads; worker advocates often raise questions about the need for foreign workers in areas with double-digit unemployment rates. Even though over 95 percent of farm employer requests for H-2A workers are certified or approved by DOL, many farmers say the current H-2A program is “unworkable.”

Farmers want three major changes in the H-2A program. First, they want attestation to replace certification. Under attestation, employers control the border gate by asserting that they have vacant jobs and cannot find US workers despite offering the prevailing wage. This assertion is sufficient to allow the entry of foreign workers, and there is no enforcement unless DOL receives complaints. Second, many farm employers do not have the housing they must offer to H-2A workers, so they want to be able to pay a housing allowance of $1 to $2 an hour rather than provide housing, if the governor agrees that sufficient rental housing is available. Third, farmers want to eliminate or freeze the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, generally the effective minimum wage they must offer to domestic and foreign workers (farmers must pay the highest of three wage markers, the AEWR, minimum or prevailing wage). The AEWR is $9 an hour in California in 2006, where the minimum wage is $6.75 an hour, and $8.51 in North Carolina, where the minimum wage is $5.15.

Farmers won these attestation, housing, and wage changes in AgJOBS. If the AgJOBS provisions in the Senate bill are enacted into law, farm employers would get the easier-access to legal foreign workers they want, and worker advocates would get the path to immigrant status and citizenship for unauthorized farm workers that they want. If the House bill is enacted, farmers can expect a slower influx of new unauthorized workers, which would likely put upward pressure on farm wages. The speed and extent of the jump in labor costs would depend mostly on how fast the US labor market door is closed to unauthorized foreigners and whether currently unauthorized farm workers remain in agriculture or move into nonfarm labor markets.

Over the past two decades, illegal migration has increased, so there is no recent experience to predict what might happen to farm labor costs. However, the end of the Bracero program in 1964 set in motion mechanization that reduced the demand for labor and led to unionization that brought about a 40 percent wage increase for some California grape pickers in 1966 union contracts, raising their wages from $1.25 to $1.75 an hour at a time when the federal minimum wage was $1.25. The current federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, and a 40 percent increase would take it to $7.21.

If the Senate bill were enacted, now unauthorized farm workers could become legal US workers and farmers would find it easier to employ H-2A workers. The implications for the farm labor supply are not clear. On the one hand, newly legalized farm workers would be required to continue to do farm work. If most attempted to do their required farm work in their first three years, at least 150 days a year, the result could be a short-term increase in the farm labor supply.

Some farmers may be tempted to use the revised H-2A program to obtain workers, especially since the AEWR would roll back to its 2003 level, $8.44 in California and $7.74 in North Carolina. However, for farmers not currently hiring H-2A workers, these wage rollbacks would likely to be more than offset by the additional housing charge of $1 to $2 an hour. Thus, the most likely effect of the Senate bill would be a short-term increase in the farm labor supply followed by a sharp reduction as currently unauthorized farm workers obtained immigrant visas and found nonfarm jobs.

If there is no immigration reform in 2006, a high and rising share of unauthorized farm workers would add another risk to farm production. The risk of fewer workers and higher labor costs has not deterred farmers from planting more labor-intensive crops, but has inspired more farm employer organizations to take an interest in the political process, with the major goal of convincing policy makers that agriculture needs legal workers at current costs.
Implications for Migrants and Communities
The typical newly arrived seasonal farm worker is a 25-year old man from rural Mexico not authorized to work in the US. While in the US, seasonal farm workers earn an average $8 an hour for 1,000 hours of farm work, or $8,000 a year (the 2006 poverty line is $9,800 for one and $20,000 for a family of four). Workers who find meatpacking or other year-round jobs in agricultural areas may earn a similar hourly wage, but have year-round work, doubling their annual earnings to $16,000 a year.

Many workers form or unite families in the US, especially as they move up the US job ladder to less seasonal nursery, livestock, or farm-related processing and packing jobs. Young immigrant workers soon have US-born children, which means that immigrant families in rural and agricultural areas are often mixed, in the sense that some members are unauthorized, some may be legal immigrants, and others may be US citizens by birth. Eligibility for and use of public services is uneven in such situations. All children are obliged to attend K-12 schools, but some family members may be eligible for means-tested benefits such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, and other assistance while others are not. Most of the federal programs such as those providing supplemental education and health care services to migrant and seasonal workers and their families do not check on the legal status of those seeking services.

The reactions of local communities to the arrival and settlement of migrants varies from the extreme of welcoming newcomers to rejecting projects that could lead to migrants, such as new meatpacking plants. Immigration means change, from the number and characteristics of the people living in an area to changes in housing patterns, culture, sport, and other local ways of life.

There appears to be no general pattern in migrant mobility or acceptance of migrants in local communities. Initially, many small cities with only a few major employers welcomed investors who promised to re-open closed food processing facilities or meatpacking plants. However, many of the plants re-opened with local support soon closed again in California’s San Joaquin Valley, increasing the number of people seeking jobs in areas with already high unemployment rates. In an ironic reversal of 1930s Dust Bowl migration to California, several major farming counties in the San Joaquin Valley are paying welfare recipients who promise not to return and seek aid for at least six months $1,000 to $3,000 each to move to Midwest areas with jobs.

In Midwestern towns, the welcome for re-opening meatpacking plants sometimes soured with wage cuts and an influx of migrants, so that local leaders identified with migrants were voted out of office. There has been controversy over migrants from Rogers, Arkansas to Beardstown, Illinois to Storm Lake, Iowa, raising the question of what can be learned to promote the mobility of migrants and ease their integration into the communities in which they settle. For example, in areas with stable or shrinking populations that cannot quickly add bilingual public services with stable public payrolls, some kind of federal or state integration assistance may be warranted.

Researchers may be able to help identify the characteristics of employers, migrants, and communities that coalesce to promote integration. For example, does the multiplier effect of the local industry most dependent on migrants in the local economy play a role, as when migrants picking oranges support local farmers who grow them and local workers who truck and pack them? How important are employer recruitment policies, such as favoring families over solo men, and benefit policies, such as whether health insurance is offered? Finally, do symbolic steps make a difference, as when employers who hire migrants open their training rooms to local groups offering English as a second language classes to adults, or to banks that help migrants buy homes?

Migrants and communities face other challenges. Entry-level seasonal farm jobs are rarely careers, and migrant children educated in the US seldom follow their parents into the fields or packinghouses. If migrants seek nonfarm or other jobs for upward mobility, how attached will they be to the communities in which they have their first US jobs? What efforts will local communities make to educate the children of migrants if they leave to avoid following in their parents’ footsteps? In short, how does rural America avoid being firmly placed on an immigration treadmill, requiring a constant infusion of newcomers from abroad to sustain local industries?
Farmers and farm-related industries increasingly rely on foreign-born workers to fill especially entry-level jobs. Many and perhaps most of these immigrant workers are unauthorized, increasing the risk of unpredictable changes in the availability and cost of labor in what is already a risky business and complicating the integration of immigrants and their families.

The immigration reform debate in 2006 has important implications for farmers, farm workers, and rural communities. There are four major options: status quo, enforcement only, enforcement plus guest workers, and enforcement plus legalization. The status quo gets agriculture and associated industries a labor force, but with externalities increasingly perceived as negative by most Americans. Enforcement only threatens to raise labor costs and force adjustments, most likely in an uneven manner that will put some farmers out of business.

Enforcement and guest workers would help to cushion the effects of fewer unauthorized workers on farmers, but would result in more solo male workers living in barracks on farms or in nearby communities. Labor-intensive US agriculture may also continue expanding, resulting in importing workers to produce fruits and vegetables, some of which are exported. Finally, enforcement and legalization would add people to rural America. However, if newcomers continued to fill seasonal farm jobs for a decade or less, and their children did not follow them into the fields, the result could be a new type of rural poverty that would eventually be remedied with rural-urban migration.

The most realistic policy option is enforcement and guest workers or legalization, accompanied by a program that accelerates the development of mechanical aids and labor-saving mechanization. Mechanical aids can allow women and older workers to do more farm jobs and for more years, while mechanization can reduce the need for hand workers over time. To avoid the outcome of 1986 immigration reforms, which resulted in more unauthorized foreigners in an expanding agriculture dependent on them, reforms in 2006 could lead to a gradual reduction in agriculture’s dependence on immigrant workers.

In the past, agriculture has often been associated with “positive externalities,” from preserving open space to providing a living link to the founding fathers. More recently, “negative externalities” have been associated some types of farming, arising from issues that range from waste disposal and pesticide use to water pollution. Without new partnerships and programs to integrate immigrant workers and their families, and to share the costs of such programs, an increasingly immigrant work force could become a new negative externality associated with food production.

Turning immigrants into a “positive externality” in rural and agricultural America is likely to require leadership and commitment from employers, local communities, and the immigrants themselves. This leadership and commitment are unlikely to be forthcoming until the legal status of the foreigners in rural America is clarified. Thus, in dealing with the foreigners who are becoming the core of the rural labor force, rural leaders will have to weigh in on a debate between those who want foreigners to be guest workers and those who want foreigners to be immigrants, perhaps the most crucial “people issue” in rural America today. A guest worker future would mean more solo men living in temporary quarters while they work in the US, and significant production facilities in areas with relatively few families. An immigrant future would mean more families, and an associated integration challenge.
More Information
This paper is based on discussions at a June 14-15, 2006 conference held in Washington DC. The papers and presentations are posted at:

Updates on immigration and integration issues in rural America are available at: