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October 2013, Volume 19, Number 4

White House, Labor Shortages

The White House released a report on July 29, 2013 highlighting the benefits of immigration reform to agriculture and rural communities. The report emphasized that farm exports are expected to top $136 billion in 2013, meaning that a third of the $400 billion worth of US-produced farm commodities are exported. Some US farm exports depend on foreign-born workers.

The White House report asserted that US agriculture is smaller than it would otherwise be because of the lack of a stable and legal work force, but cited no evidence. It warned that if farmers change to less labor-intensive crops because they fear insufficient labor, the US could become less food secure.

The report drew heavily from USDA's farm labor web page (www.ers.usda.gov/topics/in-the-news/immigration-and-the-rural-workforce.aspx#Hired). It emphasized the high share of foreign-born workers and used ACS data to report that an average 505,000 non-US citizen farm workers were employed between 2007 and 2011.

The report summarized grower surveys that found labor shortages, and noted that wage increases and employment drops were found in some areas. However, analysis cannot distinguish whether crop changes that result in wage and employment changes were made for marketing, weather or labor reasons.

The report cited simulations that showed there would be less farm output and exports if the number of unauthorized workers was reduced and there were no other changes. For example, one simulation found that a 40 percent drop in unauthorized farm workers would reduce farm output by up to five percent after 15 years and farm exports by up to 10 percent. Adding 330,000 temporary foreign workers, on the other hand, would increase fruit and vegetable exports up to five percent.

The White House report said that legalization could increase farm worker earnings up to 10 percent if newly legalized workers learned English and acquired skills, which may also encourage them to leave for nonfarm jobs. It cited studies that conclude that immigrant workers complement US workers, raise their wages, and push US-born workers similar to immigrant farm workers up the US job ladder.

The White House report argued that new guest worker programs will better protect legal foreign and US workers because immigration reform will give the government new tools to crack down on employers who hire unauthorized workers. Under Senate bill S 744, farmers will have four years until they must use E-Verify to check new hires, and DHS will study how E-Verify works in agriculture.

The White House report included a special section on rural communities, noting that some 46 million people live in rural America. The report noted that the number of foreign-born residents has increased sharply in non-metro counties throughout the US. The report cited other advantages of what it called "commonsense immigration reform," including higher earnings and more taxes paid to state and local governments and more housing purchased by now legal US residents.

The report ends with quotes from a range of employer, worker and NGO groups endorsing S 744, the bill was approved by the Senate on a 68-32 vote in June 2013.

Advocates. The California Strawberry Commission, which reported that 65 percent of strawberry growers were Hispanic and 15 percent were of Japanese or Asian descent, sent a delegation to Washington DC in August 2013 to push for immigration reform. The growers joined the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is pushing for more H-1B visas, to press for easier access to guest workers.

California produces almost 90 percent of US strawberries from 40,000 acres. Half of the state's strawberries are from the Salinas-Watsonville area, which has about 35 percent of the state's acreage but a longer growing season than other areas of the state. Strawberry growers posted signs seeking workers, complaining that pickers were moving from one farm to another in search of higher piece-rate earnings.

CSC chair Victor Ramirez said "We want to explain to lawmakers how our industries have been built in large part by immigrants, who remain essential to the future success of our nation's largest sectors of the economy ? agriculture and technology."

Labor Shortages. Farm employers reported too few harvest workers in September 2013. California labor contractor Jesus Mateo said: "In the past, we were overrun with farmworkers [but now] employers have to do something to attract them." Farm workers have become more selective, choosing to work in fields closer to where they live and in commodities that allow them to maximize earnings.

Cell phones empower workers by allowing them to quickly check on piece-rate wages at various farms and move to those that offer the highest wages.

Tehama County olive growers in October 2013 complained of too few workers. Contractors were reportedly charging $400 to $500 a ton to hand-harvest olives, whose value to growers is $800 to $1,000 a ton, making labor costs up to half of grower revenues. Piece-rate wages increased in 2013 because fewer new workers are arriving from Mexico.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called on DHS in a September 2013 letter to exercise "prosecutorial discretion to defer enforcement against agricultural employers and workers?[because they] contribute to our vital agricultural economy and heritage, and the safe and high-quality food supply that benefits all Americans." Feinstein added: "I am afraid that this aggressive worksite enforcement strategy will deprive the agricultural sector of most of its workforce and cause farmers and related industries across the country significant economic harm, as well as driving up food prices for consumers." Feinstein sent a similar letter in September 2012.

White House. 2013. Fixing Our Broken Immigration System: The Economic Benefits to Agriculture and Rural Communities. www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/07/29/fixing-our-broken-immigration-system-economic-benefits-agriculture-and-r