Labor Series: Pt 6 ~ Anyone Believe in the Market Anymore? Immigration Reform & Bracero Program Redux

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Written by guest writer Dave Runsten, Policy Director of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).

What is happening with immigration reform, an issue vital to farmers across the country? In fact, nothing of consequence has happened since the Senate passed its immigration bill in June 2013. Some piecemeal legislation has passed House committees, but no floor vote has been allowed on any immigration bill, and it is unlikely that any will be taken this year.

The Obama Administration has deported over 2 million undocumented immigrants and, without immigration reform, farmers will continue to face an ever-shrinking labor force.

One of the great ironies of the immigration debate is the conflicting voices of people who profess to believe in free markets, yet demand more government intervention when it comes to policing immigrants. Another irony is the tech industry with their H-1B visas.  But, the worst examples are the farm labor guest worker programs — both the House Judiciary Committee’s program as well as the one included in the Senate immigration package.

A man holds a protest sign during a rally for immigration reform in Los Angeles, CaliforniaThe Senate’s legalization program for the currently unauthorized farm workers (who are already here working) is a remarkably sensible program, giving them work visas (Blue Cards) and requiring them to work a certain number of days in agriculture for some years in order to gain permanent residence status.

On the other hand, the Senate’s proposed guest worker program heads in the exact opposite direction.

The program requires four federal agencies—State, Homeland Security, Labor, and Agriculture—to oversee a highly prescriptive program that needlessly drives up costs to farmers and gives few rights to workers. These proposed changes would be a nightmare for small farmers: they would have to cover the workers’ cost of housing and transport, engage in positive recruitment of non-existent domestic farm workers, pay new and existing workers the prescribed wages, and then probably be sued by Legal Services (every farmer in California who has used the H-2A program has been sued).

By contemplating expanding the H-2A program from about 50,000 workers per year to 337,000 in five years—or about 15 percent of the nation’s agricultural labor force, this proposal is essentially an effort to resuscitate the discredited Bracero Program (1942-1965). The Bracero Program was ended in 1965 due to a decade of corruption in recruitment, stagnant wages, substandard housing, and its use to impede farm worker organizing.

The Bracero Program did not stop undocumented migration, and desertion from the program was common. The program worked for certain groups of growers in specific crops organized in employer associations, but it could never fill the broader demand for labor, even when it imported a half-million workers a year.

Agriculture does indeed need a continuing flow of foreign-born workers and currently 98% of California farm workers are foreign-born. The guest worker program’s plan to use workers briefly and then send them home will actually encourage further flows of unauthorized migrants and off-the-books employment, and eliminate any chance there might have been for the proposed E-verify system to create an “electronic border” to protect the U.S. labor market.

migrant-workers-farmThe Senate’s guest worker program is inhumane. Workers can’t bring their families and settle in the U.S. even if their employers would like to keep them on. Even year-round livestock workers are expected to live for years without their families. Though there is some provision for employers to petition for permanent legal status for their workers, this would depend on the quota of such visas allocated to the workers’ country of origin, and countries like Mexico have not been given very many.

This creation of a temporary labor force is at odds with food safety requirements for a permanent and skilled farm labor force.

The proposed guest worker program restricts newly admitted workers to work only in agricultural jobs. According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS), 19% of U.S. crop farm workers held a non-farm job, as well as a farm job in 2007-2009. Some work both jobs at the same time. Their labor market mobility benefits entire communities, not just the workers themselves, and some off-season industries depend on this labor. Who is going to enforce provisions keeping them corralled on the farm?

Agricultural organizations are afraid that newly legalized farm workers and foreign-born workers admitted to the country will leave agriculture. This fear is exaggerated, as the NAWS data show that approximately 40% of those who were working in our fields and orchards in 1989 are still doing farm work today. Farm workers leave as they age or other opportunities arise, but bureaucratic barriers won’t stop this natural process.

Though farm labor is physically demanding and people naturally move on, this process can best be managed with a program that acknowledges the need to replenish the current farm labor force by admitting modest numbers of foreign-born workers each year. A solution is simply to extend the Blue Card program into the future. Have the State Department issue work visas to individuals in selected countries with the stipulation that they must work 100-150 days per year in agriculture in order to renew the visa or eventually receive a green card. Let them come and go on their own, find their own jobs, house and transport themselves as the undocumented migrants do now. Such workers would be equally available to all farmers at minimal cost. They would be indistinguishable from current farm workers if employers and workers were required to pay all taxes and insurances as they are now with the undocumented.

The Federal government does some things well, but it does not have a good record at setting wages and managing labor markets. Let’s give both employers and workers the right incentives and not repeat the downward spiral towards large numbers of unauthorized workers. If we let the invisible hand of the market substitute for multiple federal bureaucracies, everyone will be better off.

Farmers need immigration reform, but they don’t need a new Bracero Program.

If you’d like to take action in support or opposition of the guest worker proposal, contact your Congressional representative and/or contact one of the farm organizations in the coalition of agricultural organizations that supports the guest worker proposal. If you agree that we don’t need a guest worker program, contact any of these organizations and express your opinion.


Thank you again Dave Runsten for this insightful article. For more information on immigration reform, farmworker rights, and CAFF’s policy program, get in touch with him: dave@caff.org.

If you happened to miss them, check out our other articles in the Labor & Worker Safety series:

If you’ve had to deal with farm worker rights, immigration, labor or worker safety issues let us know! We’d love to hear your stories for upcoming articles. If you have a question or comment to share, visit FarmsReach Conversations.

Also, check out our growing Labor & Worker Safety ToolkitIf you have other great resources to share, get in touch!

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