Foresight on Food Politics

Foresight on Food Politics: Why do farmers hire illegal Mexican workers?

Why do farmers rely on Mexican workers, often illlegal?

As more than 500 companies lined up before this week's deadline to get their bids in to build a prototype of the Trump administration's promised border-security "wall" between Mexico and the United States, agricultural interests were continuing to caution that America's farmers could be hurt by a planned crackdown on illegal immigration. Bloomberg Politics, for example, reported last year several sources within the nation's dairy industry were expressing concern even before Trump's nomination that building an immigration-tight wall between Mexico and the southern United States would cause the nation's milk-producing farms in particular to suffer.

The continuing debate over immigration and its peculiar relationship with U.S. agriculture here may raise the question with shoppers: Why do farmers hire so many immigrant, and sometimes illegal, workers?

Cost. If you believe the advocates for laborors' rights, it's all about cost control. Farmers hire immigrants, often undocumented, because they can pay them less than native workers, better control efforts to unionize and bargain, and keep them in low-level positions because they have fewer options. Although no doubt some farm employers are guilty of that exploitation, such a black-and-white picture of the economics of immigrant labor is too simple.

In one sense, the cost-control argument is correct. Migrant farm workers do get paid relatively little. But it's not because they're migrants. If's because they're farm laborers. The average wages for hired farm workers across the board in the United States are the second lowest category for all U.S. workers, trailed only by private household help. Underpaying immigrant labor is less about exploiting them than it is about the monetarily thankless task farming in general is: In U.S. farming and ranching, farm managers as a whole earned a median annual income of only about $64,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure compares to nearly $86,000 for other managerial occupations in this country. The average U.S. corn farmer, for example, made only $25.63 per acre for his time in 2015, USDA survey data show. The average U.S. farm size is 434 acres. You do the math.

With that said, according to USDA, average hourly farm worker pay for 2016 was $12.98, which is above both the national $7.25 minimum wage and the BLS' $10.43 average hourly wage for grocery cashiers. Yet it's widely accepted in the farming community those wages often aren't sufficient to motivate legal citizens to turn down unemployment payments, SNAP cards, Section 8 Housing and other benefits that might dry up should they accept employment in the often difficult business of farmwork. That leaves farmers with little choice than to hire immigrants, they say.

Shortage. With a national unemployment rate that peaked at 9.5 percent during the 2009 recession and still lingers at about 5 percent, along with a real unemployment rate that's still more than 9 percent, many have a hard time believing farmers when they claim they can't find enough workers. But according to Texas A&M ag economists Dennis Fisher and Ronald Knutson, those general averages don't paint an accurate picture of the farm-labor supply. Their recent work shows reports of labor shortages are in fact real, if you consider the labor markets at the local, not national, level.

Their figures show that the national farm labor force is made up of approximately 1.1 million workers, which has been relatively stable for at least the past decade. But their data also indicate substantial seasonal variability in that supply. For example, the total number of workers ranged from 802,000 in January 2010 to almost 1.35 million in July 2010. And they believe even those national data do not reveal the more extreme seasonal hiring fluctuations that occur in local markets. In addition, Fisher and Knutson challenge the notion that immigrant farm labor is mobile and thus fluid to move to areas of shortage. They cite studies demonstrating three out of four immigrant field-crop workers work at a single location within 75 miles of their permanent home, and they predict the percentage of settled workers on livestock farms is even higher. America may have surplus of farm labor as whole, but locality, the shortages are often acute. At the local level, the farm labor shortage is real.

Bureacracy. One reason estimates say the number of immigrant farm workers working illegally in this country is from 50 percent to as high as 70 percent is that all other factors equal, the cost difference between hiring an illegal and legal immigrant often prices the legal out of the market. The federal government's guest worker program is hampered by bureacracy and delay, they write. Before an agricultural employer can use the program, he must demonstrate the domestic labor supply can't meet his requirements and that hiring immigrant worker won't drive down wages of similar native workers. A University of Florida study reported in February found complying with the pre-hiring requirements of the guest-worker program to hire one citrus picker from Mexico added $1,900 to the cost of that worker. Fisher and Knutson cite the story of a Georgia blueberry grower that illustrates the practical outcome of such regulation. In order to rectify the fact that 90 percent of the 67 workers the grower hired over the course of a year were working illegally, he decided to apply for guestworker approval. After following all prescribed procedures, only 13 workers accepted jobs, six worked for three days or less, only two worked for more than two weeks, and none finished the harvesting season.

Desire and ability. “The notion that immigrants are taking jobs away from American workers is simply not true,” said Missouri dairy farmer Randy Mooney in conjunction with release of a study by the National Milk Producers Federation showing 51 percent of the nation's dairy employees are immigrants. “Dairy farmers have tried desperately to get American workers to do these jobs with little success — and that’s despite an average wage that is well above the U.S. minimum wage.”

One of the widely held sentiments for preferring Mexican immigrants that farmers don't often openly talk about is they believe they're better at the job. A more rural population (although that's changing in Mexico as it is in the United States), along with some cultural traits often leave Mexican immigrants more suited to farm work, particularly livestock-related work, than native Americans.

Research suggests that's not just prejudice. A November 2016 study by the American Immigrant Council supports the notion."Our findings challenge well-established perceptions of individuals working in low wage service jobs—such as janitors, maids, or caregivers—as socially invisible workers performing tasks requiring little or no skill or special training," the study says. "In contrast to these perceptions of the disadvantaged and unskilled migrant farmworkers, we found substantial skill transfers, skill development, and social mobility among the migrant farm workers in our study. Of the male migrants who entered agricultural jobs upon arrival in the United States, for example, 80 percent said that their agricultural experience and knowledge of planting and harvesting crops in Mexico helped them learn new ways of doing things in their agricultural jobs abroad."



Foresight on Food Politics: Political schizophrenia will continue

Politics has grown schizophrenic

Despite the reality that Republicans swept the November 2016 elections, winning not only the presidency and both houses of the U.S. Congress, but also gains that put them in control of both legislative chambers in 32 of the 50 states, with veto-proof majorities in 17, along with 33 of 50 state governors, the political climate is far from consensual. A growing rift over several issues that many might have considered already settled long ago will continue in 2017, amounting to what could rightly be called political schizoprhenia. Even in Nebraska, areas of hot disagreement will continue to strain some former alliances, including:

Immigration. President Trump's promised overhaul of U.S. immigration law, including strengthening the southern border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration and to increase enforcement efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants, has put him at odds with much of his support base in American agriculture.

As a result of the chronic labor shortage U.S. farms face, it's been estimated that as many as one in four U.S. farmworkers are foreigners without legal documentation. A 2012 USDA study predicted that tightening border enforcement and cleaning up the federal government's temporary visa program for farmworkers could have significant negative impacts on U.S. farms, in particular, fruit and nut growers, vegetable producers and nurseries. A similar study underwritten by the American Farm Bureau in 2014  found changes most similar to what President Trump has proposed would cause unacceptable harm to American farms. Farm Bureau called instead for policies that would permit workers with experience in agriculture but no legal status to stay. Trump's popularity in rural America notwithstanding, success for Trump's southern wall is likely to require a big gate be included.

Trade. Despite that widespread support by farm states for Trump, who ran on promises of renegotiating trade deals to favor American business and bring back manufacturing to this country, the reality is that the farm economy—and surrounding communities, as in Nebraska—is increasingly dependent on world trade. With net farm income projected to be down nearly 40 percent over the last three years, according to a USDA report from late December, farmers will continue to be dependent on export markets to support depressed prices and declining profits at home. According to current estimates, about one-third of all U.S. farm income comes from exports. Yet, Trump spent much of his campaign attacking multilateral trade deals that support U.S. agricultural exports, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal, which American Farm Bureau estimated would have added $4.4 billion annually to the U.S. agricultural economy. Economic analysis conducted by Nebraska Farm Bureau last year showed that virtually every county in Nebraska would have benefited from the agreement, which would likely have increased agricultural cash receipts by more than $378 million a year.

Loss of those trade deals need not be all bad, if the new administration moves agressively toward one-on-one trade agreements that benefit the United States, as Trump also promised. But for now, Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president, said his organization was disappointed with Trump’s decision.

Food companies driving proxy farm regulation. Perhaps no better example of how food politics have been turned inside out exists than this: Even as big-business food companies adopt and promote high-profile positions that require their farmer-suppliers to agree to self-regulate practices ranging from environmental sustainability to animal-welfare, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has openly attacked many of the previous administration's environmental and animal-welfare regulations. Pruitt sued the EPA in 2015 over the proposed Waters of the United States rule, which would have placed regulation of ditches and small creeks under EPA control as "navigable waters." He also helped write Oklahoma's ballot question 777 last year which would have required courts to recognize the rights of farmers in that state to farm as they see fit.

Taxes and the budget. The Nebraska state government's projected $911 million budget shortfall as this year's legislative session opened spells continued division over how to solve the funding shortfall, often making for an uncomfortable fit among otherwise natural political allies. While farm groups push for a reduction in what they believe to be crippling local property taxes, businesses are urging the state not to hide a continuing overall high tax climate by simply shifting those taxes onto a state level, where accountability could be lower.

Foresight on Food Politics: Election food-news briefs

A wrap-up of 2016 political food issues

As shoppers across Nebraska sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, traditional and not-so-traditional, take a minute to reflect on the numerous ballot initiatives this fall aimed directly at changing the nature and make-up of that table. Highlights include:

Foresight on Food Politics: What is 'livestock friendly,' and why should you care?

What is livestock friendly?

More than a decade after Nebraska's legislature began creating “livestock friendly” designations for counties, those counties that have participated have gained more cattle ranches and lost fewer hog farms than counties that have not sought the state designation, according to a new study by University of Nebraska ag economists.


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