Briefing Papers Number 12, December 2011

Number 12,  December 2011 briefing paper Laura Elizabeth Pohl Farm Workers and Immigration Policy by Andrew Wainer Key Points • The U.S. food system—and particularly fruit and vegetable production— depends on immigrants more than any sector of the U.S. economy. It is up to policymakers to help the public understand the role of immigrant farm workers in the U.S. agricultural system. • Immigrant farm workers should have a legal means of being in the United States. The approximately 1.1 million unauthorized immigrant farm laborers in the United States do work that citizens will not perform and that farmers need. • Our agricultural guest worker mechanism—the H-2A program—is regarded as onerous by growers and exploitative by farm worker advocates. The AgJobs proposal reforms the H-2A program to make it acceptable to both groups. • H-2A reform should also promote economic development in the rural Mexican communities where two-thirds of hired farm workers originate. By integrating these communities as stakeholders in the agricultural guest worker system, they can develop alternatives to unauthorized immigration. Andrew Wainer is immigration policy analyst for Bread for the World Institute. Bread for the World Institute provides policy analysis on hunger and strategies to end it. The Institute educates its network, opinion leaders, policy makers and the public about hunger in the United States and abroad. Abstract 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 work schedule contribute to a precarious economic state. Immigrant farm workers fill low-wage jobs that citizens are reluctant to take. Attempts to recruit citizens for farm worker jobs have failed. Domestic production of fruits and vegetables could decrease without immigrant farm workers. In spite of the role they play in U.S. agriculture, unauthorized immigrant farm workers labor under increasingly hostile conditions. The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security bill (AgJOBS) was developed by farmers and farmworker advocates to regularize the status of workers in the agriculture sector. Public concern about unauthorized immigration has held up prospects of enacting the bill into law. Farm workers should be legalized so they can work without fear of deportation and so that farmers have access to workers they need. Immigrant agricultural workers can also support human capital renewal on farms struggling to recruit the next generation of farm operators. Rural communities in Mexico—where immigrant farm workers originate—should be integrated into a U.S. agricultural guest worker program that benefits U.S. and Mexican farmers.