From HungerReport.org, Nov 2011.
Do you know who to thank for harvesting much of our U.S. fruits and vegetables? Immigrant farm workers.
In fact, domestic production of fruits and vegetables—foods Americans should be consuming more of—could decrease significantly without immigrant farm workers.
Close to three-fourths of all U.S. hired farm workers are immigrants, most of them unauthorized. Immigrant farm workers fill low-wage jobs that citizens are reluctant to take.
Their unauthorized legal status, low wages, and an inconsistent and sometimes unpredictable work schedule contribute to a precarious economic state.
Read more about the history of importing farm workers, current agricultural working conditions, and agricultural guest worker programs.
E-Verify is an Internet-based system that enables employers to electronically verify the work eligibility of newly-hired employees. It was created during the Clinton Administration as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.34 Currently, 216,721 employers are registered to use the E-Verify system voluntarily.35
As World War II intensified, the need to produce food for the troops helped overcome public opposition to Mexican agricultural guest workers. The Mexican government was also initially reluctant to allow its citizens to work in U.S. agriculture, but the Mexican Labor Program—commonly known as the “Bracero Program”—became the official Mexican contribution to the war effort.4
FLOC works on guest worker recruitment, education, and training issues on the Mexican side of the border—but it doesn’t address the impact of the H-2A program on the Mexican communities that send these workers. In fact, this is one of the most under-analyzed parts of the H-2A program. It is rare for anyone, including the Mexican government, to raise the concerns of sending communities. The reasons Mexicans leave home to become farm workers in the United States are often not part of this or most other discussions of immigration reform.
While immigration reform, including passage of AgJOBS, is a long-term struggle, there is potential to improve the H-2A program more expeditiously, making it work better for growers, farm workers, and immigrant-sending communities in Latin America. “This is the only option that we are seeing to improve things right now on the ground,” said Diego Reyes, executive board member of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
With both growers and farm workers on board for agricultural labor reform, the prospects for AgJOBS would seem good. At one time, the bill appeared to be headed straight for passage; a version of AgJOBS introduced in the Senate in 2000 had strong Republican support and was seen as the most likely immigration policy reform to pass.
In 2000, after decades of wrangling over the contours of an updated guest worker program, the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security bill (AgJOBS) was introduced in Congress. It has been periodically reviewed and debated—but it has not been enacted into law.50
Fruits, vegetables, and horticulture make up a class of agriculture known as specialty crops. More than 75 percent of all hired farm workers in the United States work on these labor-intensive crops.39 The $51 billion specialty crop sector is increasingly a source of export revenue for the United States; between 1989 and 2009, exports of high-value agricultural products, including fruits and vegetables, more than tripled.40
Even a cursory look at the intersection of the U.S. farm and immigration systems reveals a fundamental contradiction. While many farm operators depend on foreign labor, immigration law denies foreign workers legal status unless they arrive through the H-2A program. If a non-H-2A farm worker is in the wrong place at the wrong time, he or she can be expelled from the United States.
U.S.-born workers do not have much interest in farm labor, and it is not hard to understand why. Farm work is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States.27 Workers face exposure to pesticides and the risk of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and/or repetitive stress injury. Moreover, farm workers are not included in most minimum wage and hour guarantees. Most farm workers do not receive benefits, but some states with large numbers of farm workers, including California, Oregon, and Washington, provide wage and hour protections, as well as mandatory rest and meal periods over and above those mandated by federal law.28
Three-fourths of hired farm workers are immigrants, mostly from Mexico.13 About half of all U.S. hired farm workers are unauthorized immigrants.14 Although immigrant farm workers have higher incomes in the United States than at home, they don’t always escape poverty as they had hoped.15Hired farm work is among the lowest-paid work in the country.16 In 2006, the median earnings of these workers—$350 per week—were lower than those of security guards, janitors, maids, and construction workers. Only dishwashers were found to have a lower weekly median income.17
John Steinbeck’s 1939 novelThe Grapes of Wrathdescribed the harsh working conditions of migrant farm workers from the Midwest. More than 70 years later, agricultural work in the United States is still often harsh and wages are low. But the composition of the farm labor force has changed. There are no more Okies. Instead, farm workers come from places like the Mexican states of Guanajuato and Michoacán. The majority of hired farm laborers in the United States are unauthorized immigrants, and most unauthorized workers are from Latin America—particularly Mexico. Spanish is the lingua franca of farm labor; 71 percent of farm workers identify it as their primary language.1
For more than a century, agriculture has been an entry point into the labor market for immigrants in the United States.Presently, close to three-fourths of all U.S. hired farm workers are immigrants, most of them unauthorized. Their unauthorized legal status, low wages, and an inconsistent and sometimes unpredictable work schedule contribute to a precarious economic state.