A report commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation was released earlier this month. The report focused on how the agricultural business depends on undocumented workers and what type of impact immigration reform could have on this fact. The document focuses on three different alternatives: (1) enforcement-only; (2) enforcement plus a pathway to legalization; and (3) enforcement plus a pathway to legalization and a guest worker program for sectors with special labor needs such as agriculture.
While the different alternatives are important, I think a good place to start this discussion is understanding why the farm business has come to rely so heavily on undocumented workers. It is estimated that undocumented workers account for more than 50% of all hired farm workers.
One possible explanation is the fact that labor is considered to be farmers' third largest expense each year. When you consider this high number, it is understandable why farmers are inclined to employ those with labor availability while at the same time keeping eye on the cost of wages. In turn, many farmers rely on undocumented aliens in order make a profit.
Next, farmers have grown to rely on hired laborers who can and are willing to work more or less depending on the season. Traditionally, employers in all sectors have found it challenging to hire seasonal workers who are dependable. However, farmers rely on seasonal workers for a variety of products, such as: fruit, vegetables, dairy, hogs, and poultry. Undocumented workers are generally willing to work as seasonal demands changed.
Third, certain areas of the country rely on farm workers more than others. States such as California, Texas, Michigan, and North Carolina need available workers for smaller areas within each of these states. In communities with lower populations, it can often be difficult for a farmer to hire enough laborers - citizens or not. This means that farmers are forced to look for workers outside the immediate area who are willing to come and work for just a limited period of time.
Fourth, it seems that many U.S. citizens now consider farm work to be “a thing of the past” and have stopped considering agricultural employment as a means of work. Studies have shown that people would rather stay unemployed than take-on seasonal farm work. This means that in many cases, there is not only a small group of available workers, but even within that group, there are less who are actually willing to do this type of labor.
Finally, the sizes of farms have increased over the last several years. This means that there may be less farmers, but the size of their farms has grown and thus, they need more day laborers to tend to the fields.
As I noted above, one potential type of reform is “enforcement-only.” The report notes that if this type of policy is implemented, there could be major repercussions associated with food prices and production. Specifically, it's stated that enforcement-only immigration would “raise food prices over five years by an additional 5 percent to 6 percent and would cut the nation's food and fiber production by as much as a staggering $60 billion.”
The effect on agriculture is just another reason why “enforcement-only” reform practices do not work. What are your thoughts? Do you agree that an enforcement-only policy would devastate the business of agriculture to the degree described in this report?