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Will farmers support legalizing aging farm workers?

February 21, 2018

The Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) was negotiated in Fall 2000 by worker and grower advocates. AgJOBS would have legalized most unauthorized farm workers, required them to continue to do farm work for three to five years to earn an immigrant visa, and made it easier for farmers to hire legal guest workers to replace legalized farm workers who found nonfarm jobs.

AgJOBS was touted as an example of worker and employer advocates negotiating a solution to unauthorized migration. AgJOBS was included in the comprehensive immigration reforms approved by the Senate in 2006 and 2013, but was not enacted into law.

When AgJOBS was negotiated in 2000, the average age of crop workers interviewed by the National Agricultural Worker Survey was 33. Unauthorized newcomers in the US less than a year were almost a fifth of crop workers, and they were an average 24. The average age of all unauthorized farm workers was 28, so AgJOBS would have given farmers a relatively young and legal workforce.

Unauthorized Mexico-US migration declined after the 2008-09 recession, and there has not been an upsurge since. Unauthorized foreigners who pay $5,000 or more to smugglers to enter the US shun seasonal farm jobs that offer $10,000 to $15,000 a year. The share of newcomers in the crop workforce has fallen to two percent, and is not likely to increase in an era of more Border Patrol agents and interior enforcement.

The crop workforce is half unauthorized, meaning employers could have difficulty hiring many of the 1.2 million unauthorized workers if all employers were required to use the E-Verify system to check the validity of worker documents against government databases. The average age of unauthorized crop workers is approaching 40.

The fresh blood in the farm workforce today is primarily legal H-2A guest workers, whose average age is 32, about the average age of all crop workers in 2000. Most farm employers believe that the productivity of workers employed in hand harvesting and similar jobs peaks between 25 and 35, so legalizing under 30-year-old farm workers and requiring them to continue to work in agriculture was supported by growers in 2000. There may be less employer support today for legalizing 40-year old workers.