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."