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January 1996, Volume 3, Number 1

Agricultural Guest Workers

On December 7 and 14, the House Immigration Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims held hearings on agricultural guest workers.

The December 7 hearing was the first one devoted entirely to guest workers in the 1995 round of immigration reform. Growers testified that they support efforts to reduce illegal immigration, but that they also want a "viable, legal work force."

The only way to guarantee such a work force, they argued, is with a new standby guest worker program that would permit farmers to employ foreign workers after attesting that they had attempted to hire domestic workers. After filing such an attestation with the US Department of Labor, a farmer would be allowed to recruit, have admitted into the US, and employ foreigners unless complaints led the US government to revoke his right to do so.

Most observers do not believe that US farmers need a streamlined guest worker program, because, by measures that range from wages to unemployment rates, there are surpluses rather than shortages of farm workers. Many growers acknowledge the current labor surplus, but they assert that, with new efforts to control illegal immigration, they will no longer be able to employ unauthorized workers who present them with false documents.

The effect of proposed new immigration enforcement measures on the farm labor supply depends on two unknowns: first, on how many people now in the farm work force are unauthorized immigrants, and second, on how effective the new measures will be. Farmers assert that the share of unauthorized workers is high--in excess of 50 percent of the farm work force--and that the new measures to control illegal immigration will be both effective and quickly-felt.

Opponents say that the illegal-immigrant share is lower (the US Department of Labor estimate is 25 percent), and that any impacts of immigration enforcement on farm labor supplies will be gradual and incremental, not sudden and dramatic. Furthermore, they say that growers could adjust to fewer unauthorized workers by recruiting US workers and temporary foreign workers through the H-2A program, or reducing their demand for labor through mechanization or better management of farm labor.

Both President Clinton and the US Commission on Immigration Reform (CIR) oppose a new agricultural guest worker program, arguing that a new guest worker program would increase illegal immigration and reduce employment, wages, and work standards for American workers. President Clinton stated in June that if a crackdown on illegal immigration, which he favors, should create labor shortages for perishable crops, he will instruct the Departments of Labor and Agriculture to work together to improve existing programs to meet agriculture's needs.

At the December 7 hearing, representatives skeptical about a new foreign farm labor program, including Subcommittee Chair Lamar Smith(R-TX), agreed with the majority of economists and immigration specialists, who say that if 20 to 40 percent of the current farm work force is unauthorized, farm employers will be able to adjust gradually to the loss of unauthorized workers by employing US workers and getting legal foreign workers through the H-2A program.

Academic researchers and representatives of farm worker organizations pointed to the current farm-labor surplus in the United States, falling real wages, benefits, and working conditions for farm workers, and high levels of unemployment and underemployment. A new guest worker program, they contended, is neither justified nor workable in such a surplus-labor environment.

The most outspoken opponent of a new agricultural guest worker program present at the December 7 hearing was Howard Berman (D-CA).

On December 14, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims and the Agriculture Subcommittee on Risk Management and Specialty Crops held a joint hearing on guest workers. USDA testified that the Clinton administration is opposed to the establishment of a new guest worker program; the existing H-2A program is a "sufficient means to provide relief to farm employers from serious labor shortages as well as to improve the wages and working conditions of US agricultural workers."

Growers argued that the H-2A program fails to meet their needs and cannot be made to work. They urged approval of the simpler attestation procedure for obtaining temporary foreign farm workers.

Although the growers program has not yet been released in detail, growers assert that, under it, they would attest that they had tried recruit US workers and promise that if they consequently employed temporary foreign workers, they would pay them at least the prevailing wage rate; provide housing or a housing allowance when it is the prevailing practice; confine the guest workers to jobs that last less than 10 months; notify existing farm workers they have filed attestations; give preference to qualified US workers in hiring; and avoid using guest workers when there is a strike or lockout.

Growers would pay for the cost of administering the program with contributions to a trust fund equivalent to the payroll taxes that would not be paid on the guest workers' wages.

Some growers argued for a better employee verification system. One Florida farmer was reportedly fined $150,000 for hiring illegal alien workers, and then fined again - $120,000 - for firing 40 workers whose documents did not appear to be in order.

Growers are gaining allies. An op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal on November 9 advocated a guest worker program for agriculture. Its author, Rael Jean Isaac, argued that the Bracero program "worked," and, for this reason, the current H-2A program through which temporary alien farm workers are admitted for US farm work should be revamped to resemble the 1950s Bracero program.

The Isaac article and a summary of grower testimony to the Senate Immigration Subcommittee on September 28 (MN, October, 1995), prompted many responses in the Wall Street Journal. For example, it was noted that, when all the costs are counted, there may be nothing more expensive than cheap farm workers. In Santa Barbara county, strawberry acreage increased almost four times between 1986 and 1993, and the resulting farm worker poverty helped a local employment training agency to win a $500,000 training grant by arguing that the number of poor farm workers in the area had increased.

Isaac and other writers often overlook significant details of the Bracero program. First, there was not one program, but several programs, some administered by the USDA, some by DOL. For a few years, farmers could recruit workers in any manner they chose, as in the H-2A program. Second, there was always opposition to the Bracero program--the President's Commission on Migratory Labor in 1951 recommended against a Bracero program. Congress overrode this recommendation, but included several of the protective features that the Commission recommended.

Farmers not wishing to follow Bracero program guidelines encouraged illegal immigration and employment in the early 1950s. They were shielded by the "Texas proviso" of the 1952 INA, under which the only punishment for employment of illegal aliens, even when it was deliberate, was the removal of the aliens from the employer's premises. Farmer resistance to PL-78 Bracero program guidelines in the early 1950s, plus the dependence of hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers on US jobs, are what produced the "wetback crisis" of 1954.

Third, the undoing of the Bracero program began in the late 1950s, when the Secretary of Labor in a Republican administration decided to enforce the rules under which Mexicans worked in the US Farmers complained bitterly, but when it became clear that, starting in 1961, Democrats would enforce the rules even more vigorously, research aimed at saving labor grew enormously. The University of California alone was engaged in over 300 labor-saving mechanization research projects in the early 1960s, including the successful effort to mechanize the processing tomato harvest.

A guest worker program can always convert illegal into legal workers, as was done in the mid-1950s. But the Bracero program proves that admitting hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers for as little as six weeks can have unforeseen and undesired consequences.

In early November, several of the House Republicans spearheading immigration reform efforts toured California fields to hear growers' proposals for a guest worker program. Immigration subcommittee chair Smith was quoted as saying that he hopes his immigration reform bill will not have "an adverse effect on the labor supply," which some growers interpreted as support for a guest worker program, since they maintain that 30 to 50 percent of their current work force are illegal aliens.

The grower strategy is to exaggerate the share of unauthorized workers in the farm work force, agree with Congress that new controls will quickly reduce illegal immigration, establish that the H-2A program is not a sufficient safety valve, and thus justify a new guest worker program now, while Congress is dealing with immigration reform, rather than in the future, when there may be farm labor shortages.

The purpose of guest or non-immigrant worker programs is to add workers to the labor force without adding permanent residents to the population. Critics point out that, from Japan to Germany, guest worker programs have failed to do that, inspiring the adage that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary workers.

Over time, employers, investors, and local workers begin to make decisions that assume that foreign workers will continue to be available, so that the familiar argument, "we will go out of business without foreign workers," becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Professor Mark Miller of the University of Delaware noted that France's seasonal worker program admits primarily alien farm workers, but it shrank from 200,000 in 1974 to 11,300 in 1994, when mostly Moroccans and Poles were admitted.

Many of the illegal alien farm workers who became legal residents in the 1987-88 Special Agricultural Worker program got green cards in December 1990, are now eligible to apply for US citizenship. About 52 percent of the 1.3 million SAW applications were filed in California, and 82 percent of all applicants were from Mexico. The INS received one million applications for naturalization in 1995.

The effects of a wave of farm worker naturalizations are the subjects of debate. The INS and most farm worker advocates encourage naturalization as a means of promoting inclusion-- giving all residents full rights. However, some immigration control groups, as well as some local officials, assert that naturalization will increase family unification and welfare costs.


Louis Freedberg, "1.2 million farmworkers are eligible for U.S. citizenship," San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 1995. David Pace, "Farmers Lobby for immigrant program," December 19, 1995. Associated Press; Deborah Billings, "Growers, farm worker advocates debate the merits of a new temporary worker program," Daily Labor Report, December 15, 1995. Kerry Benson, "Vice stresses need for labor safety valve," Ag Alert, December 13, 1995. Marc Lacey, "Congress may ease for guest workers," Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1995; Michael Doyle, "Panel Cool to ag guest worker plea," Sacramento Bee, December 8, 1995. Rael Jean Isaac, "Invite the Guest Workers Back," Wall Street Journal, November 9, 1995. Philip L. Martin and J. Edward Taylor, "Guest Worker Programs and Policies," Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, Program for Policy PRIP-UI-40, April 1995.