PDF _ RL30395 - Farm Labor Shortages and Immigration Policy
9-Feb-2004; Linda Levine; 20 p.

Update: August 18, 2004

Previous release:

Abstract: The connection between farm labor and immigration policies reemerged as an issue in the Congress and was under discussion by the Bush and Fox Administrations before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Bush?s remarks in December 2003 about a broad-based temporary foreign worker program have reignited interest in the issue. Questions have again arisen about whether enough workers are available domestically to meet the requirements of farmers and how, if at all, the Congress should change immigration policy, which has long been linked with the seasonal needs of crop growers for direct-hire and contract farmworkers.

Fifty-five percent of today?s hired farmworkers are not authorized to hold U.S. jobs. For many years, farmers have expressed concern that if certain federal activities prove effective, a considerable portion of the agricultural labor force and hence of their livelihood could be lost. These federal actions include increased border enforcement efforts, work eligibility verification pilot programs and audits of employees? work authorization documents to determine their authenticity.

Growers contend that the sizeable presence of unauthorized aliens implies a shortage of legal farmworkers. Their advocates argue that farmers would rather not employ unauthorized workers because doing so puts them at risk of incurring penalties. Farmworker advocates in turn counter that crop growers prefer unauthorized employees because they are in a weak bargaining position with regard to wages and working conditions. If the supply of unauthorized workers were curtailed, it is claimed, farmers could adjust to a smaller workforce by introducing labor-efficient technologies and management practices, and by raising wages, which, in turn, would entice more authorized persons to become farmworkers. Grower advocates respond that further mechanization would be difficult for some crops and that substantially higher wages would make the U.S. industry uncompetitive in the world marketplace without expanding the legal farm labor force. These remain untested arguments, as perishable crop growers have rarely, if ever, operated without unauthorized aliens in their workforces.

At the present time, trends in the agricultural labor market generally do not suggest the existence of a nationwide shortage of domestically available farmworkers, in part because the government?s databases cover authorized and unauthorized employment. (This finding does not preclude the possibility of spot agricultural labor shortages, however.) Hired and contract farm employment has not shown the same generally upward trend of total U.S. employment from 1990 through 2003. The length of time hired farmworkers are employed has changed little or decreased over the years, depending on the measure examined. Their unemployment rate has varied little and remains well above the overall average. Underemployment among farmworkers also remains substantial. And, although two data series show different levels and trends in the wages of field workers, they do concur that these agricultural employees earn little more than 50 cents for every dollar paid to other employees in the private sector.

This report will be updated as new data becomes available.

 [read report]

Topics: Agriculture, Population, Economics & Trade

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