The Department of Labor estimates that more than half of the 2.5 million farm workers hired each year in the United States are undocumented immigrants. Given this staggering number, it is obvious that there needs to be some changes associated with immigration and farm labor.
The proposed immigration reform bill that has been passed by the Senate speaks to certain allowances and programs directed specifically at farmers. It is pretty clear that farm work is just one of many areas where immigrant workers are commonplace, so why is it that farmers get special considerations? There are a handful of reasons:
- Farm work is difficult and doesn't pay very well. Most people would agree that farm labor is one of the most physically demanding jobs out there and according to Philip Martin, a UC Davis professor, the typical worker is paid only $10 per hour and just about $10,000 annually. Most farm laborers will tend to work at multiple farm locations in order to make a living.
- Farmers already get special benefits from the federal government. If you are at all familiar with the relationship between farmers and the government, you know that there are certain advantages provided to farmers that others do not get. These advantages include things like tax relief and subsidies. Not to mention the fact that farming is one of the few professions that has its own seat in D.C.: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Most agree that this is appropriate because farmers are responsible for the nation's food supply.
- Farmers already have a guest-worker program, it's just inefficient. While the idea of starting from scratch to create a program that would alleviate this concern may seem daunting, some of that worry may be diminished when you discover that there is already a program in existence. The problem is that this program doesn't work very well. There is currently a visa known as the H-2A visa that was created to allow for farmers to employ immigrant workers when U.S. citizen workers are not available. Unlike many other visas, there is no cap on the amount of H-2A visas that may be handed out to qualifying individuals. Unfortunately, only approximately 2% of a farmer's workforce have an H-2A visa. The complaint from many farmers is that the process involved with procuring an H-2A visa is cumbersome and lengthy. Many agricultural employers conclude that it is simply easier to bypass the visa altogether.
- Farmers have noticed that there are fewer farm workers coming from Mexico. With each year that passes, there are less and less people (immigrants and nonimmigrants) who are interested in working for farmers. At this point, farmers may need to turn to less labor-intensive crops or improve agricultural technologies. However, these are both easier said than done. Many farms have grown the same crops for generations and it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to change the types of crops being harvested. Furthermore, even though there may be ideas or prototypes of new technologies that would reshape farm labor, these technologies usually take decades to finalize.
Of course, there is the concern that if immigration reform does get passed, it may lead to further issues related to farm labor. For example, if immigrant farm workers are given legal rights and therefore bargaining power, would the end result be that these individuals leave the fields in search of better paying, less demanding work? The relationship between immigrants' rights and labor demand, especially in the agricultural sector, will certainly continue to be an important topic of political debate in 2014.