October 1995, Volume 1, Number 4
Agricultural Guest Workers
Despite strong statements against agricultural guest workers in
June 1995 by both President Clinton and the Jordan Commission on
Immigration Reform, California farm organizations continued their
quest to include a guest worker program in immigration reform
legislation moving through Congress.
Growers argue that, despite employer sanctions and high
unemployment rates among US farm workers, at least 30 to 50 percent
of their seasonal workers are unauthorized, so that effective curbs
on illegal immigration would lead to farm labor shortages.
The US Department of Labor National Agricultural Worker Survey, by
contrast, reports that the percentage of unauthorized workers on US
crop farms doubled from about 12 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in
On September 28, 1995, the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration held
a hearing on guest workers at which farm employers called for
amendments to the major immigration reform bills moving through
Congress, HR 2202 and S 269, to provide US farmers with temporary
nonimmigrant workers that they would obtain through an "attestation"
Growers made three arguments. First, they asserted that illegal
aliens comprise a significant share of the current farm labor force.
Growers testified that illegal aliens are 50 to 70 percent of some
harvest crews, and they implied that this percentage is typical
despite the legalization of over one million unauthorized workers in
the SAW program in 1987-88.
Second, growers asserted that the new control measures under
consideration in Congress--more border controls, more interior
enforcement, and a national registry-- will prevent them from
continuing to hire unauthorized workers who present fraudulent
documents. Given the high percentage of unauthorized workers in the
labor force, effective controls on hiring illegal aliens will leave
them with a labor shortage, they asserted.
Third, growers testified that the current H-2A program is too
inflexible to provide them with foreign workers if labor shortages
appear. Most of the complaints about the H-2A program centered on US
workers recruited for employers at public expense who, according to
farmers, do not show up, work hard, or remain with the employer.
Other factors include the requirement that growers pay H-2A workers
the higher of three wages--prevailing, minimum, or adverse effect
wage rate--and provide housing at no charge to the temporary foreign
Growers asked Congress to approve an "attestation" procedure for
them to obtain foreign farm workers. The current H-2A program is a
certification program, which means that the border gate stays shut
until the US government opens it and permits about 16,000 legal farm
workers to enter each year.
Attestation, on the other hand, means that employers open the
border gate by asserting that there are insufficient US workers
available, and the border gate stays open until there are complaints
that cause the government to close the gate.
Under the growers plan, US farmers, labor contractors, or employer
associations would "attest" that they face shortages of US workers
despite recruitment at prevailing wages and working conditions, the
listing of the jobs at local Employment Service offices, and giving
preference to US workers who apply for farm jobs. Growers would be
able to submit the names of workers who should be granted
nonimmigrant visas in Mexico and elsewhere to come to the US to do
farm work for up to 10 months each year.
Growers would pay user fees to cover the cost of administering the
program, and the workers would be encouraged to return to their
countries of origin because 25 percent of their US wages would be
withheld and repaid to them only after they returned.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1995, farm papers carried
stories about why such an alternative to the current H-2A program was
For example, the Packer on July 24 quoted Jim Holt and Monte Lake
asserting that, without an alternative to the H-2A program, effective
controls over illegal immigration would produce a labor shortage, and
that, under proposed reforms, the INS could search farms without
obtaining search warrants, and farm and other employers found to be
violating both immigration and labor laws could face double fines and
forfeiture of their assets.
These and other advocates followed the same script in most major
farm papers--scare farmers with news of the crackdown on illegal
aliens, propose the alternative to H-2As, and develop reasons and a
coalition to back the inclusion of the alternative in immigration
reform legislation in Congress.
Some advocates argue that easy access to foreign workers is
necessary to keep farm wages lower than they otherwise would be, and
thus to keep fruit and vegetable agriculture competitive in the
global economy. However, farmers get only about one-third of the
retail value of most fruits and vegetables, and farm workers receive
only one-third of what farmers get, so that, for a $1 head of
lettuce, farmers get an average $0.33, and farm workers $0.11.
Even if farm wages rose 50 percent, from today's $4 to $6 range to
$6 to $9 per hour, and if all of the wage increases were passed on to
consumers, the head of lettuce would cost consumers $1.05. And retail
prices may fall rather than rise, as occurred when the end of the
Bracero program encouraged farmers and processors to change the way
that the tomatoes that Braceros picked were handled. In the tomato
case, the end of immigrant labor caused production to rise, and
retail prices to fall.
Wallace Huffman of Iowa State University estimated that retail
prices will rise more in the short than in the long run as growers
adjust to higher wages, and that prices will rise more in the summer
and fall months, when most North American produce is being harvested
in the US, than in the winter and spring months, when there are
significant imports from Mexico.
Growers offered a pre-emptive strike against critics who said that
there were no farm labor shortages today by asserting that farmers
cannot wait for a shortage to plan for foreign labor to harvest their
crops, that their proposal was not similar to the discredited Bracero
program, and that, even if the government tried to push up farm
worker wages, there would still be farm labor shortages.
Farm worker advocates countered grower assertions on the
availability of US workers. The made two major arguments. First,
there is no shortage of workers, only a shortage of decent wages,
benefits, and working conditions.
Second, employers prefer vulnerable foreign workers to US workers.
In North Carolina, for example, it was asserted that US
citizen-Puerto Rican workers were sent to employers where they would
not have work for two weeks, and told that they would have to live at
their own expense until the work was ready to begin, while H-2A
workers were sent to work immediately. It is no wonder, they assert,
that US workers under such circumstances, often abandon farm jobs,
while H-2B workers stay with their employers as required by their
Several critics emphasized the contradiction between the federal
government spending money on special programs to overcome the poverty
of farm workers at the same time that it permits immigrants to hold
down farm wages.
In an effort to drum up support for the growers' proposal, the
National Council of Agricultural Employers issued a "fact sheet"
that, inter alia, noted that the cost of labor affects the
competitiveness of US growers, and that growers believe that
restricting the availability of foreign workers would not create more
jobs or raise farm wages, but would instead increase imports.
It is not clear whether the growers will repeat their successes of
the early 1980s, when they, over the objections of the sponsors of
immigration reform legislation, persuaded Congress to approve a
non-certification alternative to the H-2A program.
Two of the key allies of the growers in that battle still
influence immigration policy. Leon Panetta, who led the fight for the
growers in the House, is President Clinton's chief of staff, and
Clinton reported assured California farmers in September 1995 that
"they would be taken care of" if labor shortages developed and, at a
presidential summit in Portland in late June, Harry Kubo of Fresno
urged Clinton endorse agriculture's need for "guest workers."
However, both California senators oppose the California growers
proposal, a fact that Kubo said would make it harder to sell to
Governor Wilson, who led the growers' fight in the Senate, in an
August session with the California Farm Bureau asserted that he had
not changed his position since the mid-1980s. The Wilson program
would have allowed foreign farm workers to "float" from farm to farm
in the US, and encouraged them to return to Mexico by withholding,
according to Wilson, one-third of their wages.
Wilson said it has been difficult to sell such a guest worker
program because of public confusion between illegal immigrants and
guest workers. Wilson, a former presidential candidate, said that, if
he were President, he would expand the US Border Patrol to reduce
illegal immigration, and push to have a guest worker program
Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) and Rep Elton Gallegly (R-CA) are making
the case for growers in 1995 immigration reforms. President Clinton,
the Commission on Immigration Reform, Sen. Simpson and Rep. Smith are
opposed to an new guest worker program for agriculture.
Many commentators have urged Congress to approve a guest worker
program. Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity, argued
that "A guest-worker program would allow the United States to benefit
from the needed labor of foreign-born workers without entitling them
to the myriad social and welfare benefits that has caused so much
resentment in states like California" while reducing illegal
The Arizona Republic interviewed historians who studied the "first
Mexican farm worker program," the exceptions to the Immigration Act
of 1917 that permitted Mexicans to enter the US temporarily for farm
and railroad jobs. This was a certification program, in the sense
that US employers were required to demonstrate a labor shortage
before seeking guest workers. However, the workers had to repay
growers for their transportation, and many arrived in debt, and piled
up more debt at company stores. The program ended in 1922.
The Bracero program brought over 4.5 million Mexican workers to
the US between 1942 and 1964. Some individuals returned year after
year, so only one to two million Mexicans participated.
According to one historian, "Ordinarily in a free-enterprise
system, if wages offered do not attract sufficient labor, they are
raised until they do. However, if the farmers' arbitrarily-set wages
did not attract enough domestic workers, the United States government
customarily declared a 'labor shortage' and approved the use of
There have been a few assertions of labor shortages in 1995.
California Farm Bureau President Vice testified September 28 that
some farm labor contractors reported that they had 30 percent fewer
workers than they wanted.
Washington State fruit growers were reported in August to be ready
to ask Congress for permission to import guest workers for the first
time in 40 years. The Washington State Apple Commission asserted that
as many as 50,000 temporary workers would be required to harvest the
state's $ 1 billion-a-year apple crop, the nation's largest. Some
estimate that 30 percent of Washington's farm workers are illegal.
A University of California study found that the number of workers
employed by farm labor contractors in California has risen steadily
since the late 1980s. In interviews, the growers said that a major
reason why they turn to farm labor contractors is increasing
regulation of the farm labor market--using contractors allows growers
to turn the cost and liability immigration and labor law violations
over to a third party, and competition between contractors to supply
workers to growers has kept the cost of using a third party about the
same as hiring workers directly.
Only one of the eleven growers interviewed said a labor shortage
was the reason he used a labor contractor.
Kerry Bensen, Immigration Issue Stirs up Washington, Ag Alert,
October 4, 1995; Linda Valdez, "A Long, 'Shameful' History," Arizona
Republic, October 1, 1995. Linda Levine, The Labor Market Effects of
Temporary Alien Farm Worker Programs," Congressional Research
Service. 95-912E, October, 1995; Michael Doyle " Employers seek entry
for foreign workers, "The Fresno Bee, September 29, 1995. Larry
Waterfield, "Illegal aliens face Crackdown," The Packer, July 24,
1995. "Wilson explains why he wants presidency," Ag Alert, September
6, 1995. Linda Chavez , "Immigrants in the U.S. job market ," The
Denver Post, August 8, 1995. Mark Krikorian, " To Help Farm Workers,
Stop Importing More of Them," The Christian Science Monitor, July 25,
1995, "Fed help for field workers," AP, July 12, 1995. Steve Sutter,
"UC Study examines labor issues," Fresno Bee, July 5, 1995. Jim
Simon, "Growers Want to Import Workers--Foes Say Move is Just a Way
to Ensure Cheap Labor," The Seattle Times, July 11, 1995. Louis
Freedberg, "Growers Push for 'Guest' Field Hands," The San Francisco
Chronicle, June 30, 1995.