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What would happen without immigrant farm workers?

November 27, 2017

About 70 percent of US farm workers were born abroad, and 70 percent of these foreign-born farm workers are unauthorized, making half of the US farm workforce unauthorized. What would happen if unauthorized farm workers were removed from the US?

Edwardo Porter of the New York Times speculated that removing unauthorized workers would hurt rather than help US workers in or linked to agriculture

Porter cited the CEO of the Western Growers Association, who said that workers born outside the US are necessary to harvest US crops, and the only question is whether foreign workers harvest crops in the US or abroad. The WGA believes that each US field job supports two or three other US jobs, suggesting that removing a million unauthorized farm workers would reduce US employment by two to three million.

Most jobs in the US food system are in supermarkets and restaurants, and these jobs would exist whether food is produced in the US or imported. The figure below shows that two-thirds of the 17 million jobs in the US food system in 2014 were in food services and eating and drinking places, while only 15 percent were in farming.

17.3 million jobs, (9.3 percent of U.S. employment)

17.3 million jobs (9.3 percent of U.S. employment

Food services and drinking places (+2,815,200 since 2000)
Textile, apparel, and leather manufacturing (-713,200)
Food, beverage, and tobacco manufacturing (+13,200)
Forestry, fishing, and related activities (+85,600)
Farming (474,000)

Note: Full and part-time jobs
Source: USDA, Economics Research Service using data from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The other issue is what would happen if unauthorized farm workers were removed from the US. Porter reviews studies of the effects of adding immigrants on US workers, noting that the expansion of Miami's labor force in 1980 after the Mariel boatlift from Cuba did not seem to adversely affect US Blacks in Miami. The Miami case study is contested, as later analyses showed the expected negative effects of Marieliotos on similar US workers.

Miami was a case of adding workers, not removing workers. Removals or deportations of unauthorized foreigners tripled between 2007 and 2011 to over 1,000 a day, and a study that compared states with more and fewer removals found no difference in how much the earnings of US-born workers changed over these years.

Such state-by-state comparisons are looking for needles in haystacks. Many factors affect the trajectory of earnings in a state, and determining how the removal of an additional 10,000 or 20,000 unauthorized foreigners, half convicted of US crimes, on the statewide earnings of US-born workers is very difficult. Arizona, for example, has a labor force of almost 3.5 million that increases by almost 100,000 a year.

Studies of past removals, including the repatriation of Mexicans in the early 1930s and again in the mid-1950s, suffer from inadequate data to draw firm conclusions. One study of what happened after the Bracero program ended in 1964 concluded that the major effect was to raise labor costs that promoted mechanization, not necessarily open ex-Bracero jobs for US farm workers.

Replacing workers with machines is the history of US agriculture, where the share of residents in rural areas and dependent on farming fell from 95 percent in 1790 to less than two percent today. The US had more farm workers in 1965 than in previous years, and the fledging United Farm Workers union was able to win a 40 percent wage increase for grape pickers in part because Braceros were not available.

Porter ends with the observation that there were 30,000 fewer hired farm workers in April 2017, 673,000, than in April 2016, 703,000. The average hourly earnings of all hired workers were $13.23 an hour in April 2017, up four percent from $12.75 a year earlier. These Farm Labor data have a high variance, and comparing two points in time can be misleading.

The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which covers an estimated 81 percent of US hired farm worker employment, reported an average 1.1 million workers in NAICS 11 agriculture in the first three months of 2016 and 2017, that is, there was no decline in hired worker employment. More important, the QCEW includes support services, nonfarm intermediaries such as labor contractors who bring workers to farms. Between 2007 and 2016, the average employment of nonfarm crop service firms rose eight percent, versus four percent for directly hired crop workers.

UI-Coverd Crop & Crop Support Employment, 2007-16

Economics teaches that reducing labor supply puts upward pressure on wages. In most markets, it is widely expected that storms or diseases that reduce the number of apples or oranges will lead to higher prices. Immigration seems to attract those skeptical of basic supply and demand adjustments, highlighting instead the man-bites-dog story that removing immigrant workers hurts rather than helps US workers.